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When ‘life’ is cruel

The United States is the only nation in which someone can be locked up forever, with no chance for parole, for a crime committed in his or her youth. The Supreme Court is expected in coming days or weeks to rule on whether states may continue this costly, foolish and cruel practice of extinguishing a youth’s hope and chances at redemption, even in cases in which no one died.

California has 250 people in this position -- condemned to stay in prison until they die for crimes they committed at ages as young as 14; only Pennsylvania and Florida have more. But this state outstrips even those two in racial disparity of prisoners sentenced in youth to life without parole.

This week, however, California moved one small, cautious step toward a more rational policy. On Tuesday, an Assembly committee approved a bill to permit a judge, 10 years or more after the initial sentencing, to consider whether to resentence the offender to 25 years to life. It’s a rational, and welcome, action.

SB 399, written by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), stops well short of adding California to the growing number of states that prohibit the sentence of life without parole for juveniles. Under Yee’s painfully modest legislation, the inmate would be unable to even ask for a hearing until a decade had passed. Then, even if the hearing is granted, a judge must find that resentencing is warranted. Even if resentencing is granted, a parole board need not grant supervised release. And even if it does, the offender can’t be released until he or she has served at least 25 years in prison. That’s hardly a recipe for the release of criminal hordes.

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The Times recognizes that some people who commit crimes before they have developed a resistance to peer pressure and an adult’s brainpower, judgment and moral capacity may remain dangerous even after years of punishment and repentance. Yee’s bill does not compel judges to grant parole when it’s inappropriate. But it demonstrates California’s faith that not every person whose life got off to a destructive start remains irredeemable. It offers a window of hope to imprisoned teenage offenders and gives them an incentive to learn, reform and aspire to a productive life.

It also demonstrates California’s commitment to do something, however minuscule, to get a handle on prison costs. The bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate but got hung up in the Assembly. Now that it is back on track, we urge lawmakers to complete their work and send it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.


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