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Rethinking Life Sentences Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

Rethinking Life Sentences Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

Making mistakes is a part of growing up. Most of us were able to overcome the consequences of these mistakes, move on with our lives and learn something from the experience. But, some young defendants convicted of serious crimes never get to take this process full circle.

In California, a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole means that an offender will literally spend the rest of his or her life behind bars. Under current law, offenders may be condemned to a lifetime spent in a prison cell even for juvenile criminal charges.

While nearly everyone agrees that serious sanctions should accompany serious crimes, in California and nationwide many are questioning whether unconditional life sentences are truly appropriate for juvenile offenders. Most juvenile offenders were simply caught up in an impulsive, youthful mistake; far from being hardened criminals, many could turn their lives around if they were only given the chance.

Pending Supreme Court Decision, Proposed California Bill Raise Similar Issues

Across the country, 73 prisoners are serving life sentences with no chance of parole for homicides committed at age 14 and younger. In a ruling expected to be handed down by the summer of 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether life sentences without the possibility of parole for very young offenders violate the Constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court’s decision will affect juvenile offenders nationwide. However, the eventual Court ruling is expected to apply only to offenders who committed crimes at age 14 or younger. California lawmakers are considering a legislative measure that would address life sentences without parole for crimes committed in the state at age 17 or younger.

Senate Bill 9 was introduced in the California legislature in an effort to give young offenders with life sentences an opportunity to, eventually, breathe free air. The bill would allow defendants sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole who were under 18 years of age at the time of their offense to petition for recall and resentencing after serving a minimum of 15 years. If an offender showed remorse and serious change, his or her life sentence could be reduced.

Senate Bill 9 fizzled out in the 2011 California legislative session. But, it still has many supporters, including advocacy groups, Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers and government officials; the bill is expected to be brought up for reconsideration in 2012.

Serious Defense for Serious Allegations

While the conversation about juvenile life sentences is gaining momentum, for now, young offenders can still face the possibility of lifetime imprisonment with no hope of repose. As such, it is especially important for juveniles accused of serious criminal wrongdoing to build a strong legal defense. If you or a family member is potentially facing prosecution for homicide or another serious offense, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

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