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A volatile election year was probably the wrong time to propose a bill that would allow prison inmates sentenced to life terms without possibility of parole to petition for sentence modification.

Senate Bill 399 by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would have allowed lifers who were under 18 when convicted to petition for re-sentencing under some circumstances.

Yee moved the measure, which would affect about 250 inmates, through the Senate and then through Assembly committees. But when it hit the Assembly floor this week, it sparked a very lengthy and emotion-tinged debate, and when all the votes had been counted, it fell well short of passage.

Yee needed 41 Assembly votes but garnered just 34 Tuesday. More than a dozen Democrats - especially those from relatively conservative districts and/or facing tough competition in the Nov. 2 election - either joined Republicans in opposing the bill or, as Capitol jargon puts it, "took a walk" by not voting. The final count was 34-38 with six Democrats not voting.

Proponents contended that it would be inhumane to lock up children for the rest of their lives because juveniles were not as capable of making judgments as adults. The Supreme Court recently outlawed life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide case. All of those in California are in prison for either directly committing homicides or being participants.

But opponents of the measure said those affected had committed or abetted heinous crimes and softening up their life sentences would dishonor their victims. Dozens of Assembly members spoke on both sides of the bill with the rhetoric often heated and emotional.

The bill failed even though Yee made last-minute amendments that tightened up the conditions under which the juvenile lifers could apply for reconsideration of their sentences. But even had it passed, a signature by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been problematic.

The final vote can be seen here.


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