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California rightly revisits its tough-on-youth-crime stance

Juveniles were locked up largely because of cruel California laws adopted in the 1980s and 1990s

California long led the world in juvenile injustice. Just five years ago, when there were only seven people outside the U.S. serving life prison terms with no possibility of parole for crimes they had committed before they became adults, California had more than 200.

They were locked up with no hope for eventual release largely because of cruel and costly laws adopted in a frenzy of anti-crime sentiment in the 1980s and 1990s. Rising gang crime fueled fears that juveniles had somehow become inhuman and deranged — a belief likely bolstered by the fact that California voters were disproportionately older and white, while the youths being charged with violent crimes were disproportionately Latino and African American. The cultural gap may have made it easier for voters to see juvenile offenders and their families as alien to society rather than an integral part of it.

A 1990 anti-crime ballot measure made life-without-parole sentences the norm for killers, and many other offenders, under 18. Teenagers who committed crimes could be written off — and imprisoned — as forever beyond redemption.

The tough-on-youth-crime stance ignored a growing body of scientific research demonstrating that teenagers simply don't have brains that are sufficiently developed to provide the kinds of judgment and impulse controls expected of adults.

Gradually, leaders and lawmakers here came to realize that it was unjust to lock up people for crimes committed in their youth without leaving even the slightest chance for parole, regardless of their underdeveloped mental and emotional state at the time of the crime, regardless of any reckoning or responsibility gained over the course of their imprisonment.

Finally, in 2012, the law changed. The prison doors were not thrown open; on the contrary, the new law merely allowed such inmates who had already served at least 15 years to ask judges to change their sentences to allow parole hearings. If the judge agrees, parole can still be denied, and even if it is granted the governor can overturn the decision. But youthful offenders, aging in prison, gained at least a chance at freedom.

On Wednesday, Edel Gonzalez, now in his 30s, became the first person released from a California prison under the new law. An Orange County judge, the parole board and the governor were convinced that the person who committed a senseless killing at 16 had grown to understand the immorality of his act, had been punished, had been rehabilitated and was no danger to society.

The successful process shows that California, too, has grown beyond senselessness in its sentencing laws — although it was not ahead of the national curve. Over the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has demonstrated an evolving understanding of the essential differences between adolescents and adults.

In 2005, the justices ruled that it was unconstitutional for a state to put a person to death for a murder committed as a minor. Just as juveniles cannot be entrusted with the rights and responsibilities of adults, given that they lack an adult's judgment and maturity, they cannot be held to answer for their crimes to the same degree that an adult can, the court reasoned. They could be imprisoned, but not executed.

The same reasoning applied in 2010, when the court struck down sentences of life without even the possibility of parole for crimes — other than murder — that perpetrators committed while still juveniles. The justices ruled that such offenders should be able to at least have a chance to request parole, sometime in their adult years, after demonstrating remorse and working to make amends.

In 2012, the court ruled again, this time applying their previous reasoning to most murder convictions. If the basis for the earlier rulings was that juveniles lack an adult's capacity to reason and to act responsibly, the fact that the crime was especially egregious doesn't change that. Not every life without parole sentence for a killing committed in the perpetrator's youth is now necessarily deemed cruel and unusual, but courts must consider the mitigating circumstances, including age.

And how about juveniles sentenced before the 2012 ruling? In December, the court agreed to consider whether its ruling should apply to states retroactively. But the case became moot in January, when the inmate in the case the justices were considering was released from a Louisiana prison. On Monday, though, they took another case that calls on them to answer the same question.

On the merits, the answer should be easy: If a life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed while the perpetrator was a juvenile is cruel and unusual punishment for anyone sentenced after the 2012 decision, it's just as much a constitutional violation for anyone who has been serving such a sentence for years or even decades.

The court's decision hinges in part on procedural rules defining when states can make such decisions for themselves. As the justices work through those rules, though, they should keep the substance of the constitutional question foremost in their minds. It would be all the more cruel and unusual to deny a parole hearing to people merely because their horrendous juvenile mistakes were committed in the distant past instead of recently.

California, meanwhile, is still no leader in more enlightened approaches to the sentencing of juvenile offenders. Despite the state law allowing them to seek resentencing, the state now has more than 300 inmates serving life without parole for offenses they committed before adulthood. California courts and lawmakers are waiting for the high court to decide whether a practice deemed cruel and unusual nevertheless remains permissible when applied to people locked up before 2012.

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