California was once a world leader in sentencing juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole - a claim to fame state officials have been rightly trying to change. The problem was so bad that at one point when only seven people outside of the U.S. were serving life terms without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, California prisons were housing more than 200.
The stiff laws that created a system capable of locking juveniles up with no hope of release were created during the tough-on-crime period of the 1980s and 1990s - a time when concerns about gang crime were at their peak. Unfortunately, these measures disproportionately affected youth minorities, and made life-without-parole sentences common in juvenile murder cases, as well as for other crimes.
Today, lawmakers and state officials are attempting to rethink the harsh sentences handed down to juveniles in recent years and allow certain offenders to apply for parole. Here are a few key points about the movement:
- Last month, 39-year-old E. Gonzalez became first inmate to be released under a 2012 measure that changed California laws on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. In particular, the laws allowed such inmates who have served at least 15 years to petition for parole. Gonzalez' crime involved a fatal carjacking, but he was not the triggerman.
- California was not the first to act on rolling back harsh sentences for juveniles. Over the past decade, this issue has been a point of contention throughout the nation. In 2005, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to employ death sentences in cases involving minors accused of murder.
- Although the 2012 law has been applied retroactively, California prisons are still home to over 300 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed before they were adults.
Last month's release of a reformed inmate sentenced as a juvenile speaks volumes about the changes lawmakers are trying to make to California's jails and prisons. It also shows acknowledgment that juveniles and adults are fundamentally psychologically and emotionally different.