California Abolishes Death in Prison Sentences for Children


California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 394, which ends life imprisonment without parole sentences for children in that state. Approximately 300 people have been sentenced to die in California prisons for crimes committed when they were teenagers.

California joins Arkansas, North Dakota, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia in abolishing life-without-parole sentences for children in 2017.  So far, more states have banned juvenile life-without-parole sentences in 2017 than in any other single year.

California was one of the first states to enact reforms after the Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders in Miller v. Alabama. In 2012, it enacted Senate Bill 9, which gave children sentenced to die in prison an opportunity to ask their judges to provide them a chance for parole.

Under SB 394, all children sentenced to die in prison in California are now eligible for release on parole, with a first opportunity for a special youth offender parole hearing after 24 years in prison.

Another provision signed into law on Wednesday extends the Youth Offender Parole process to people who were up to age 25 at the time of the crime, providing for earlier parole hearings and requiring the parole board to pay particular attention to the person’s youth and how it impacted his behavior. Advocates report that 36 percent of people released from prison in California are incarcerated again within a year, but no one paroled under the youth program has been returned to prison within the first year.

The governor also signed SB 395, which protects children in police custody by barring police from interrogating children 15 and younger until the child has consulted with an attorney. Children are more vulnerable than adults in police interrogations and have a higher rate of false confessions; a recent study found that 42 percent of exonerated juveniles had falsely confessed, compared with 13 percent of adults.

EJI Director Bryan Stevenson joined elected officials, national legal experts, rehabilitation program providers, and criminal and juvenile justice reform advocates in supporting the new legislation.

“Our futures are all bound, and California’s leadership on this issue can benefit the state while helping guide the country,” he said. “The reforms Governor Brown has championed, to reduce the state’s prison population and increase rates of release, will help provide a viable path toward post-release success.”