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Senator takes aim at juvenile prison terms
February 27, 2009, 12:00 AM By Michelle Durand

Juveniles convicted of crimes should still risk being sentenced to life in prison without parole but have their terms reviewed after 10 years for possible re-sentencing, according to the San Francisco state senator who is taking a second stab at decreasing the number of minor convicts without hope of freedom.

Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, introduced Senate Bill 399 which, if passed, would not offer the complete overhaul he suggested last year but tweak current law so those convicted under age 18 have a second shot at release from custody.

 "Children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults,” said Yee. "The neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning and critical thinking skills are still not yet fully developed.” 

The bill provides review of a youth offender’s sentence after 10 years and establishes specific criteria on which the Board of Parole Hearings could base a new sentence. According to Yee’s bill, the guidelines require that the juvenile:

• Did not commit a felony with significant potential for personal harm prior to the current conviction;

• Committed the offense with at least one adult codefendant;

• Prior to the offense, he or she had insufficient adult support or supervision and had suffered from psychological or physical trauma;

• Suffers from cognitive limitations due to mental illness, developmental disabilities or other factors that did not constitute a defense, but influenced the defendant’s involvement in the crime;

• Has performed acts that indicate rehabilitation or potential for rehabilitation;

• Has maintained family ties or has eliminated contact with individuals outside of prison who are currently involved with crime;

•  Had no violent disciplinary violations in the last five years.

The San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office has no position on the bill at this point, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

The office, however, was not a fan of Yee’s previous juvenile sentence reform bill which sought to abolish the sentence of life in prison without parole.

California’s Proposition 21 allows prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults in a host of felony crimes, such as sexual assault and gang activity. Under the law, any juvenile charged with murder and special circumstances must be tried as an adult. Yee’s bill proposed changing the Penal Code to prohibit a juvenile who commits a crime from being sentenced to more than 25 years to life in prison. The offender could not see parole until the 25 years minimum was completed.

Approximately 200 juveniles in the state are currently serving life without a parole — the alternative to capital punishment for first-degree murder and special circumstances, according to Yee.

In comparison, only 12 juveniles in the world outside of the United States are serving the term, he said.

Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. 

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