DO JUVENILE CONVICTS DESERVE AN OPPORTUNITY FOR REDEMPTION?By Katy Grimes
Members of the Assembly tried to answer that question through long debate last Thursday (Aug. 25), but they failed to pass a bill offering California’s juvenile criminals convicted of heinous crimes a second chance at re-sentencing.
Authored by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), SB 9 would give juvenile offenders a chance to reduce their sentences of “life without possibility of parole” by allowing the juvenile convicts to submit petitions for sentence reconsiderations after serving 15 years.
“You either believe in redemption or not,” said Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) as he jockeyed Yee’s bill on the Assembly floor. “Are you the same person you were 25 years ago? Have you ever made mistakes?” Cedillo asked.
Cedillo then acknowledged that the juveniles in question “were not Boy and Girl Scouts and have ended the lives of others.”
And the fight began.
Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) said the bill was an attack on Proposition 115, the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act of 1990. Hagman added that, because Yee’s bill was an attempt to change a ballot initiative passed by voters, the bill should require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
“This is about much more than redemption,” said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Hesperia). “If you take a human life, you should have to give up your own.”
But California already treats juvenile criminals differently. The Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report in 1995 about juvenile crime in California, and updated it in 2007 . It read:
Under certain circumstances, youthful offenders can be tried either as juveniles or as adults. But even in these situations, their treatment is different from that of adults. For example, a juvenile who is arrested for an ‘adult’ offense can be adjudicated in either juvenile court or adult court; if convicted, he or she can be incarcerated in either a county or state correctional facility or left in the community; and if incarcerated, he or she can be placed with either other juveniles or adults. In contrast, an adult charged with the same offense would be tried in an adult court; if convicted, he or she would be incarcerated by the state and would be housed with adults.
Antelope Valley Assemblyman Stephen Knight asked, “Why wouldn’t we do that with everyone, if there’s some factor of redemption?” And he reminded colleagues, “Someone’s family will have to live without that loved one.”
While the floor speeches were taking place, Sen. Yee was in and out of the Assembly, speaking with legislators.
“I continue to be a supporter of the bill,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). ”There are many safeguards. By no means is this a free pass or get-out-of-jail card.”
But several Assembly members were critical of the focus on the criminals instead of the victims and families of victims.
“I am struck by the testimony,” said Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine). “We’ve said, ‘We will take care of you and that criminal will never see the light of day again,’ but we are not. The voters told us through Prop 115 what they want. We show victims’ families no compassion if we undo this.”
Perhaps the weakest perspective came from Assemblyman Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), who said victims’ families contacted his office in support of the bill. Pan questioned why the state would lock “someone up forever, if they are able to re-contribute to our state.”
“The elephant in the room is racial disparity,” said Assemblyman Anthony Davis (D-Los Angeles). “Why is it we haven’t locked up white youth as much as Latino or African Americans?”
Said Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), “California has the worst record in the country for racial disparity when handing out sentences. Davis said that and I back him.”
Others talked about how the murder victims are usually of the same race as the perpetrators.