Thousands of prisoners in California and around the country have spent years and sometimes decades behind bars for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. It is not uncommon for juvenile offenders who commit violent crimes to be tried as adults and receive life sentences, and that is not likely to change in the near future. However, the way society views individuals who committed crimes as minors but remain incarcerated decades later is starting to change.
Second look laws
Criminal justice advocacy groups have been calling on lawmakers to pass what are known as second look laws for decades, but their calls went unanswered until Washington, D.C., became the first jurisdiction in the United States to pass such a law. The law was passed in 2017 and expanded in 2021. Florida, Oregon, Delaware, Washington and Michigan soon followed the example set by the nation’s capital, and California put a second look law on its books in October 2018 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2942. Sentencing reform was an especially pressing need in California because the Golden State has the highest prison population in the country and the most prisoners serving life sentences.
The interests of justice
Prisoners seeking release who were convicted of committing violent offenses when they were minors still face many challenges even in parts of the country that have passed second look laws. They have to convince a judge that they no longer pose a threat to society and releasing them would serve the interests of justice. Second look laws are supported by advocacy groups and juvenile defense attorneys, but they are strongly opposed by prosecutors. When lawmakers in the nation’s capital were considering the country’s first second look law, prosecutors issued a press release claiming that its passage would make more than 500 violent criminals immediately eligible for release.
Hyperbole and compassion
It comes as no surprise that second look efforts are greeted with hyperbole by prosecutors seeking to court favor by exaggerating the threat posed by people who have spent decades in prison for mistakes they made when they were children. Fortunately, lawmakers, judges and society as a whole appear to be taking a more compassionate approach.