California is paying a heavy price for its get-tough-on-crime attitude, with an underfunded and overcrowded prison system, the nation’s worst recidivism rate and a rotten international image as the state with the highest death row population. But of all the inequities of a dysfunctional penal system and harsh state laws, few can touch our predilection for discarding the lives of children who commit crimes before they’re old enough to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
Sentencing youths under 18 to life without the possibility of parole is a violation of international law that has been banned in nearly every country in the world except this one. A recent report by Human Rights Watch identified just seven people outside the United States who have been subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment -- but it found 227 in California, which leads the nation in juvenile injustice.
There are a number of reasons for California’s sad history of youth incarceration, though perhaps the biggest is that Los Angeles is the birthplace of modern street gangs, which recruit teens and turn them into homicidal child soldiers. In addition, state law includes an unusually high number of “special circumstances” that increase the penalties in homicide cases. Youths 16 and 17 who are convicted with special circumstances are sentenced to life without parole (adults in such cases would be eligible for the death penalty).
Not long ago, scientists thought the human brain was fully developed by early adolescence. But modern technology, allowing more sophisticated brain scans, has shown that isn’t true. Parts of the frontal lobe involved in inhibiting impulses and appreciating consequences aren’t fully formed in most people until they hit their early 20s. Rash, risky and even illegal behavior is commonplace among teens. Few go so far as to commit murder, and those who do obviously must face serious penalties, but it is perverse to condemn a minor to prison for life for committing a crime that he or she might find unthinkable on reaching adulthood.
A bill before the state Senate, which will expire after Jan. 31 unless it’s approved by a two-thirds vote, would correct this injustice. SB 999 from Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) changes the sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of murder with special circumstances to 25 years to life. It’s a lengthy term but still assures that those eligible for parole would have a chance to turn their lives around. Critics object that the bill would only encourage youth violence and gang killings, but there is little evidence that harsh penalties quell such behavior. Stronger community anti-gang programs are a better approach.