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Senate bill: Youth could petition life in prison sentences

August 22, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Should hardcore juvenile criminals be locked away for life with no hope of parole? It's a controversial topic, and now a push is under way to change California law.

Some church groups say it's immoral to let young teens die in prison. Critics say governors already have the power to commute sentences.

Led by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a coalition of religious leaders is making a final push for California Senate Bill 9, what they call fair sentencing for juvenile offenders.

Those leaders want to give a second chance to 295 California inmates who committed serious crimes before they were 18 years old and were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Most were convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances.

"The legal system that we have right now is about punitive; it's not about healing," said Father Mike Kennedy, Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

State Senator Leland Yee's (D-San Francisco) bill would allow juvenile offenders to petition a judge up to three times for a hearing that could change their sentence to 25 years to life if they've demonstrated remorse, behaved in prison and taken courses.

After serving at least a quarter-century, they'd be eligible for parole.

Victims' families could fight the release at the hearings.

John Lovell represents the California Police Chiefs Association, which is opposing the bill. But Lovell's wife's close relative was killed by a 17-year-old arsonist. He says it's unfair to drag families in for as many as three hearings to relive the loss of their loved ones.

"To add to that devastation by saying to the families of victims, 'You're going to have to go back to court' -- I just think that's an excruciating burden," said Lovell.

But Gervaise Adams, who served 12 years for a carjacking he committed as a teen, says he spent time with young kids in prison who didn't understand the gravity of their crimes, let alone the punishment.

"They didn't know what that meant, being given life. When you're so young, you don't really know what life means," said Adams.

"I think that what a lot of people miss in these discussions is that these are among the most heinous crimes committed," said Lovell.

Texas and Colorado are among the states that now do not sentence their youth to life without parole. About a dozen other states are considering the same.


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