Juvenile murderers would have the possibility of eventual release under legislation that narrowly passed the California Assembly today.
The measure, Senate Bill 9, received no Republican support and was approved by a bare-minimum majority of the house. The 41-34 vote sends the bill to the Senate for concurrence in amendments.
SB 9, by Democratic Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, would allow some offenders to petition for a resentencing hearing if they were minors when they committed a murder that landed them in prison with no chance of parole.
Offenders could not petition a court until they had served at least 15 years in prison, and they could not be released until they had served at least 25 years.
The bill would not apply to crimes in which the offender had a history of violence, the victim was tortured, or the victim was a law enforcement officer or firefighter.
In weighing whether to resentence a juvernile murderer, a judge would consider factors ranging from an offender's rehabilitation efforts to any mental illness or developmental disability that may have contributed to the crime.
Yee and other supporters argue that the functioning of a youth's brain differs from that as an adult, and that a child who commits even a heinous crime eventually should have an opportunity to prove maturation or rehabilitation.
Nearly one of every two California youth convicted of murder did not actually kill the victim but were lookouts or were participating in another felony, such as robbery, when the homicide took place, according to Yee.
"What happened to the idea of redemption?" said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat who supported SB 9.
Opponents characterized SB 9 as a danger to public safety.
"Our society has rights, also, as well as the victims' families," said Assemblyman Jim Silva, R-Huntington Beach.
About 300 youth offenders have been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. To incarcerate them until death would cost the state close to $700 million, according to Yee.