SACRAMENTO (AP) — Criminals who were sentenced as juveniles to die in prison would get a chance at freedom if a bill approved by the Assembly becomes law.
The bill, SB9, passed the state Senate last year but failed repeatedly in the Assembly before lawmakers approved it by a single vote Thursday following a heated debate about whether redemption can coexist with justice.
The legislation would allow inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as minors to petition for reconsideration of their sentence after serving 15 years. A judge would then have the option of reducing their sentence to 25 years-to-life if the inmates show evidence of remorse and efforts toward rehabilitation.
Supporters say young criminals deserve second chances because their brains are not fully mature when they commit their crimes.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who previously served as California's attorney general, has not yet taken a position on the bill, according to spokesman Gareth Lacy.
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who carried the bill in that chamber, urged his fellow lawmakers to bring California into line with federal recommendations. He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling earlier this summer that classified mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers as "cruel and unusual" punishment.
"Children who engage in crimes should be held accountable, but they should be held accountable in the context that they are young people and they have the capacity to change," Cedillo said.
California is one of 39 states that allow judges to sentence minors to die in prison. There are currently 309 offenders serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18, some of whom were accomplices to a murder.
Democratic Sen. Leland Yee, a child psychologist, wrote the bill and has worked all session to gather the votes to get it out of the Assembly.
"SB9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults," the San Francisco lawmaker said in a statement Thursday.
Several Republican Assembly members spoke against the bill, which has drawn criticism from some victim's rights groups and passed without a single GOP vote. Lawmakers argued that the sentencing change would deny justice to surviving victims and force them to revisit the crime that robbed them of their loved one.
"This bill has come back several times. If we could bring the victims back as easily, maybe we wouldn't have so much opposition to this bill," said Don Wagner, R-Irvine.
He said judges only give life-without-parole sentences for the worst offenders.
"We want them out of our communities because they deserve it," he said.
The bill was amended in the Assembly to exclude young offenders who tortured their victims or killed a law enforcement officer or firefighter. It passed 41-34 and moves back to the Senate for final approval.