Capitol Alert

California youths serving life will get possibility of parole

As part of his quest to change California’s justice system, Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation outlawing the state from sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.

The bill, by Democratic Sens. Ricardo Lara and Holly Mitchell, ensures minors convicted of an offense and serving a life sentence without parole become eligible for release under a youth-parole hearing after their 25th year of incarceration.

The authors argued that the United States is the only country in the world to use life sentences without parole for children. Mitchell noted the the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.

The Supreme Court, in 2016, offered states two options to comply with the ruling: Offer a resentencing hearing, or provide for the possibility of parole. Mitchell said the bill would make about 300 people eligible for a parole hearing and “eliminate the need for potentially multiple resentencing hearings and litigation.”

With his signature on Senate Bill 394, Brown continues his push to change the state’s criminal justice system to make it more responsive to inmates who have turned around their lives. Last fall, he successfully campaigned for Proposition 57, an overhaul of criminal sentencing meant to empower the parole board to grant early releases for inmates whose crimes the state considers nonviolent.

Inspired to act by a federal order to reduce prison overcrowding, Brown led an effort early in his first term to shift many state responsibilities for lower-level felons to the counties, paying for it with a mix of sales taxes and fees. He contended at the time that inmates would be better served by having their fates placed in the hands of local officials rather than the state prison bureaucracy.

SB 394 was part of a series of criminal justice bills Brown announced signing on Wednesday. The list also included Assembly Bill 1448, by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, which allows the Board of Parole hearings to consider granting parole to an elderly prisoner who has served at least 25 years.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago