A University of San Francisco law professor said that today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring sentences of life without parole for some youths “is a step forward with respect for juveniles.”
“We are way out of step with the international standard,” said Professor Connie de la Vega.
“It’s very shocking when you start looking into this and see that our country is the only one” allowing sentences of life without parole for juvenile crimes, de la Vega said.
In today’s decision, a five-member majority of the court said sentencing youths in non-homicide cases to life without parole violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that states are not required to grant eventual freedom to all such youths, but rather to give them at some point “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
The decision was made in the case of Terrance Graham of Florida, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for committing an armed robbery at age 17 while on parole for a violent burglary.
De la Vega, a professor of international human rights law, was a co-author of a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the high court on behalf of Amnesty International and 14 other organizations.
The brief noted that the United States and Somalia are the only nations that haven’t signed an international treaty banning life-without-parole sentences for youths, and the United States is the only country that actually imposes such penalties.
De la Vega said, “No one is saying these youths shouldn’t serve a penalty of some sort, but they should be given a chance to prove that they have been rehabilitated and now have decided to become productive members of society.”
The Supreme Court decision applies only to 129 youths nationwide who were sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes. Four or five of those youths are in California prisons, de la Vega said.
The decision does not affect about 2,400 other inmates nationwide who were sentenced to life in prison without parole for murders committed when they were juveniles.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, said there are about 250 such inmates in California.
Yee said 45 percent of them did not actually kill the victim, but were convicted of aiding a murder or of felony murder because they acted as lookouts or participated in another felony, such as a robbery, when the murder took place.
Yee is the author of Senate Bill 399, now pending in the Assembly, which would allow courts to review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after 10 years, potentially providing a new sentence of 25 years to life.
Yee, who was trained as a child psychologist, said, “The high court has consistently recognized that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.
“The neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are still not yet fully developed,” Yee said.
The senator said the proposed law “reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court barred death sentences for crimes committed by juveniles under the age of 18.
De la Vega said that while today’s decision does not apply to youths sentenced to life without parole for homicides, she hopes that today’s ruling combined with the 2005 decision may be a basis for extending the doctrine further at a later time.