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Youth Offender Laws, Rehabilitation and Release: Is It Fair?

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Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues and creative writing.


What are youth offender laws

When I write about the Youth Offender Laws in this article, I am specifically referring to the action in California, although most states have adopted similar measures.

Youth offender laws basically state that a person who was sentenced for a crime that was committed by an offender while under the age of (now it's) 26 can petition for re-sentencing or even to be released on parole. This was inspired by studies that determined the human brain does not fully develop until an individual reaches the age of 26. Because of this (scientific) fact, young people are more prone to negative influences that might have led to them committing the crime and/or are unable to properly regulate their impulse control instincts.

One of the cases that set precedence for this legislature was Miller v. Alabama. In 2012, the Supreme Court determined that life without parole (LWOP) sentences for those under 18 was unconstitutional. This was a form of cruel and unusual punishment because juveniles possessed, "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change". As things progressed over the years, the age was raised to 26 and other factors such as sentence length and the nature of the offense came into play. Adult offenders who fall under specified conditions, and whose controlling offense occurred while the inmate was under the age of 26, may be eligible for a parole hearing. This doesn't mean the courts will set them free, but under the proper eligibility guidelines, a defendant may initiate a petition for release.

Unfortunately, the American Justuce System is just riddled with lies and inconsistencies

— Tommy Chong


A Short Timeline of the Youth Offender Laws in California

Initially when the ruling from the Supreme Court was official in 2012, the law only applied to those who were convicted as minors. This set a precedence and and the law eventually evolved to include older young adults.

It should be understood that these measures are a process and not an automatic guideline. An incarcerated defendant does not gain automatic release because their offense was committed when the inmate was a juvenile. Instead he or she must petition the court, provide evidence, and show just cause in order to even be considered for removal from custody. The procedures themselves can take several years and it is possible that the time it takes to move through the courts, can exceed the petitioner's earliest possible release date.

The following was taken from The youth Offender Parole Hearings Fact Sheet released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

  • Senate Bill 260 took effect on January 1, 2014. The law established parole hearings for inmates who committed their controlling offense before reaching age 18.
  • Senate Bill 261 took effect on January 1, 2016 and extended youth offender parole hearings to inmates who were under the age of 23 when they committed their controlling offense.
  • Assembly Bill 1308 took effect on January 1, 2018 and extended youth offender parole hearings to inmates who were under the age of 26 when they committed their controlling offense.
  • Senate Bill 394 also took effect on January 1, 2018 and extended youth offender parole hearings to inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole who were under the age of 18 when they committed their controlling offense.

One of the concerns that many in the public would have about such measures is that dangerous inmates may be released back into the community where the possibility exists that more crimes may be committed. In addition, there are those who read these laws as possibly providing lenience or even a removai from culpability for youth to continue in their criminal activity. Although those may be valid concerns, there is a level of hypobole in the responses to these new bills.

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What is the Value of a Single Human Life

In general, when one considers the crimes that inspire long sentences or LWOP, one understands that there is a level of extreme violence behind those crimes. Most LWOPs receive their punishments as a result of murder, armed robberies where there was some serious or grave bodily injury (SBI or GBI), or that of habitual career criminal.

Offenses related to sex crimes are usually excluded from consideration, although there are variations, depending upon circumstances relevant to the perpetrator, victim and the court who heard the case. This level of subjectivity is ubiquitous in law and even though there are standards in sentencing guidelines, the interpretation and application of law itself is subject to human error.

In order to try and make sense of this new view on prison reform, it is imperative that the reader examine the reasons behind Miller v. Alabama and that is the understanding that with age comes wisdom. With harsher sentences and measures such as the three strikes law, prisons in California became overcrowded. Not only were there many younger people finding themselves incarcerated; a significant portion of the prison population was growing old (and dying) behind bars.

Many of the youth who entered the system were of course, from disadvantaged backgrounds. according to social scientists. Most are from poverty and under-educated, many are from racial minority populations. This fact certainly should not be an excuse for the events that landed them into the position in which they are in. However, it should be understood the effect that this has on the communities from which these prisoners come.

Does it really serve to any advantage to remove young men and women from our cities for decades? Will the victims - the families of those victimized as well - ever recognize any true recompense? In addition, the cost of incarceration - housing, health care, education programs etc. - is exorbitant when measured over decades.

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For some, this is home

For some, this is home

Is Refrom Possible?

In 2004, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) became the CDCR (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation). Ultimately the purpose of the reformatory (another name for prison) was not just to punish, but to rehabilitate. Correct and change. The question from this is, do prisons really provide rehabilitation? Can an inmate change their criminal thinking and become a self-supporting, model citizen?

Does anyone really care about this idea? Most law abiding citizens probably do not. I haven't done an official survey, but I am under the impression that most people feel if someone commits a murder, that the violator should have his or her life taken from them as well. Either through the death penalty, or permanent removal from society.

This makes sense to me as well. Particularly when the victim is someone who is not involved in any gang related activity, when the victim is a citizen going about their own business, or a police officer.

The act of measuring rehabilitation too is an ambiguous and intangible science. Someone may behave well while incarcerated - in an effort to obtain parole - and then go back to the their original circumstances upon release. What then?

What is the value of a single human life? Does everyone deserve to feel security, safety and the right to pursue their own happiness, even inmates who have committed heinous crimes?

Most of those incarcerated are someone's son or daughter, somebody's mother or father. Are those associated with the criminal victims as well. Certainly so. The value of one human life cannot be interpreted without considering these circumstances.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Finn

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