Head to Head: Should California go beyond court ruling and end life without parole for juveniles?

Published: Thursday, Jun. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 15A

THE ISSUE: The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Since California voters approved Proposition 115 in 1990, 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of murder with a special circumstance are sentenced to life without parole unless the judge finds 'good reason' to impose 25 years to life.

Should California go beyond court ruling and end life without parole for juveniles?

Pia Lopez: Yes

If Texas can do it, California certainly can.

Texas banned life without parole for juveniles regardless of the crime in 2009 – on a 30-1 vote in the Texas Senate and 124-21 in the Texas House. It was signed by Gov. Rick Perry.

At the time, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley testified: "I think even people who commit some of the most horrible crimes need an incentive to behave (in prison) and to rehabilitate and develop over a long period of time. I think that applies even greater when that person is a juvenile."

Life without parole for 16- and 17-year-olds has been a 22-year experiment in California, with 309 currently serving life-without-parole sentences.

California's pre-1990 policy was the right one – recognizing that juveniles are different from adults in being subject to peer pressure, reckless decisions and capacity for change.

California lawmakers should follow Texas and abolish life without parole for juveniles.

Short of that, they should pass Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco. That bill would give young lifers a chance to demonstrate that they should receive a sentence of 25 years to life.

SB 9 already has passed the Senate. It failed by only two votes in the Assembly last year but is up for reconsideration. A vote is expected soon.

After serving 15 years, offenders could petition the court for resentencing. Those who tortured their victim or killed a public safety official would not be eligible – such as Jimmy Siackasorn, convicted of the murder of Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen, and Frank Abella, convicted of the torture and murder of a disabled man in Rancho Cordova.

Offenders would have to meet certain criteria – such as not being the actual killer, having no prior violent juvenile offenses, demonstrating remorse or solid evidence of rehabilitation.

Then, if the court gives them a term of 25 years to life, they would have to serve at least 25 years before going to the Board of Parole Hearings to make the case that they are no longer a threat to society. By that time, they would have spent more than half of their lives in prison.

Many would never be paroled. But holding out the possibility of parole provides an incentive to good behavior.

In 2005, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned whether "even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character."

A person who commits a heinous crime at age 17 clearly deserves severe punishment. But we should not assume that the teenager of today who committed murder or participated in a felony in which someone was killed will be a danger to society forever or has no capacity for change by age 40 or 50.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

Ben Boychuk: No

Isn't it funny how Texas – right-wing Texas, the state with the highest rate of executions in the union – is the very model of reform when it comes to this question of life without parole for juveniles?

As fond as I am of the Lone Star State, I'm not so willing to assume, as Pia does, that a former juvenile felon who walks out of prison at age 40 or 50 is less likely to re-offend. Recidivism studies seem to suggest otherwise.

But in any case, this particular question is best left to voters and legislators to decide, not flighty judges.

For the moment, however, four liberal justices and swing vote Anthony Kennedy have graciously allowed California and other states the option of imposing a sentence of life without parole on minors convicted of murderous offenses.

Who knows what the court will say in a year or two? Just a few years ago, after all, states could impose the death penalty on certain juvenile offenders. The court ruled that practice unconstitutional in 2005.

In 2010, the court voided state laws that imposed life without parole on juveniles convicted of serious crimes that fell short of homicide.

Now mandatory life sentences are out.

Where does it end? It's possible even the Texas reform, which requires certain juvenile offenders to serve 40 years before receiving a parole hearing, will fall afoul of this court's "reasoning" sooner or later.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote famously that to determine whether a certain punishment is "cruel and unusual" under the Eight Amendment, "courts must look beyond historical conceptions to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

But as Chief Justice John Roberts observed in his dissent to the court's opinion this week, "A decent society protects the innocent from violence," adding, "As judges, we have no basis for deciding that progress toward greater decency can move only in the direction of easing sanctions on the guilty."

I mention this because California's voters, in their wisdom, amended the state constitution in 2008 to include a "crime victim's bill of rights." Among its provisions is the right "to a speedy trial and a prompt and final conclusion of the case and any related post-judgment proceedings."

One problem with Senate Bill 9 is that it's retroactive. Removing the option of life without parole for the worst juvenile offenders and opening hundreds of cases to appeal would conflict with crime victims' constitutional right to a "final conclusion" and lasting justice.

Where's the decency in that?

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal (www.city-journal.org/california)

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