California inmates sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers would get a second chance under a bill lawmakers sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday.
The legislation would align state law with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions by automatically giving youthful offenders a chance at parole after 25 years. About three dozen offenders would be eligible for hearings over the next three years under the measure, though there's no guarantee they would be paroled.
Five years ago, the nation's high court banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for those under 18 convicted of murder. The court made the ruling retroactive last year, saying almost all juvenile offenders should have a chance at parole one day unless their crime reflects a "permanent incorrigibility."
The court and state lawmakers backing SB394 said juvenile offenders should be treated differently because of their lack of development and potential for change.
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"No other country in the world uses this sentence for people who are under 18," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego.
The bill's supporters also say life sentences are disproportionately imposed on minorities. An Associated Press analysis published in July found that 30 percent of Californians serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors are black, a figure four times higher than the overall African-American population in California.
A 2012 California law already allows juvenile lifers to ask a judge to reduce sentences to 25 years to life with a chance of parole. But the complex process doesn't guarantee a hearing and fails to meet the U.S. Supreme Court's standards, California's justices ruled last year.
The California District Attorneys Association opposed the bill, saying it's unfair to retroactively allow the same 25-year minimum penalty for no-parole felons as for those sentenced to lesser terms of 25 years to life.
State prison officials said about 270 inmates are serving life without parole in California for crimes committed as minors.