California: New Hope for Young Offenders

Sacramento, California (HRW) – A landmark California law giving thousands of young adult offenders the chance to earn parole recognizes their potential to mature and rebuild their lives, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 3, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 261, which will make over 12,000 prisoners in California eligible for relief.

“California’s new law acknowledges that young adults who have done wrong are still developing in ways that makes a real turnaround possible,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “This law gives imprisoned young offenders hope and the motivation to work hard toward parole.”

In 2014, California established a youth offender parole process for people who were under 18 at the time of a crime but who were tried as an adult and sentenced to an adult prison term. That law provides the possibility of earlier parole for several thousand young offenders currently in California prisons, and approximately 250 have been found suitable for parole thus far. The new law extends eligibility under the 2014 statute from age 18 at the time of the crime to 22.

The youth offender parole process requires strong evidence of rehabilitation, but also requires the parole board to take into consideration that young people are still developing and that their level of culpability is less than older adults. Extending the law through age 22 reflects the conclusions of neuroscientific research, which shows that the brain is still developing into the mid 20s, and several recent US and California Supreme Court cases that have found that juveniles have less responsibility for their actions than adults and greater prospects for reform.

The new law makes individuals who were 18 to 22 years old at the time of their offense eligible for youth offender parole. Fully 10 percent of the state’s current prison population will probably be eligible for a youth offender parole hearing.

Since 2004, Human Rights Watch has conducted numerous interviews and carried out in-depth data analyses to investigate the use of extreme prison sentences for people under 18 in the United States, including the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. It has examined the circumstances and conditions of confinement for youth sentenced to life without parole throughout the US, and in particular in California and Colorado.

This research has found stark racial disparities in the imposition of sentences, with black youth serving life without parole at a per capita rate 10 times that of white youth. Human Rights Watch has worked to end disproportionate sentences for young people, and to stop the unfair transfer of youth from the juvenile system to adult court.

Flag Pixabay: Public Domain

Pixabay: Public Domain

“The effect of this new law should not be underestimated,” Calvin said. “Thousands of young people have entered California’s prisons believing they would never get out. This law tells them that they have a real chance if they work hard at rehabilitation. Hope is a powerful tool for change.”

This report prepared by Human Rights Watch.