July 31, 2017: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE EDITORIAL - State must follow high court decision on juvenile lifers

July 31, 2017

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In past decades, when California was in thrall to the belief that being “tough on crime” always worked, it was not unusual for teenage children who committed serious crimes to receive life sentences without the possibility for parole.

In recent years, many aspects of “tough on crime” policing and sentencing have been discredited.

Regarding the youngest offenders, neuroscientists and other researchers have learned that still-developing adolescent brains make teenagers particularly susceptible to peer pressure and likelier to commit reckless acts without understanding or weighing the long-term consequences.

These findings were a substantial part of the reasoning behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions to ban mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder five years ago.

In January 2016, the high court ordered states to give youthful offenders a chance at parole after serving 25 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions aren’t optional. And California’s own state law, passed in 2012, allows for reviews of cases when juveniles were sentenced to life without parole. According to California state officials, there are 268 inmates currently serving life without parole for crimes committed as minors.

Yet California’s review process has been widely criticized for being too slow and being inconsistently applied.

Petitions for resentencing hearings are handled differently from county to county and even from judge to judge. Frustrated attorneys tell stories about similar clients who received different outcomes based on county, rather than merit. The ACLU has asked the state Supreme Court to clarify the process.

The easiest solution may be a legislative one. As it happens, state Senators Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County) and Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, have a bill, SB394, that would bring California into line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

The bill made it past the state Senate. It’s got a good chance of passing the state Assembly, but it’s also met opposition from California’s district attorneys association. Of all groups, it should understand why California must do what’s legally and morally correct.