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Are California’s Youth Offender Parole Hearings Working?

A new study evaluates whether California’s new specialized parole hearings live up to the Supreme Court’s mandate to give juvenile lifers a real shot at release.

Despite efforts by Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to keep juvenile lifers behind bars, a sea change is underway across the nation in juvenile sentencing. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentencing for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional. California was the first state to pass new laws giving juvenile lifers a shot at parole, but at least 19 states have passed similar legislation in the last four years. A new study published in the New York University Review of Law & Social Change has evaluated California’s new law — known as Senate Bill 260 — to find out if it is indeed as progressive as promised.

“I was intrigued because it felt like a change in a more progressive direction toward juvenile justice policy, which for most of my career has been going in the opposite direction,” says Beth Caldwell, the study author and associate professor at Southwestern Law School.

California created specialized youth parole boards to hear the cases of offenders who have spent at least 15 years behind bars. People sentenced to both life and extremely long sentences — those that extend beyond an average life expectancy—are eligible for the specialized parole process. In California, more than 2,600 juvenile offenders are serving life sentences, but roughly 6,500 inmates have such long sentences they are effectively serving life terms.

“It felt like a change in a more progressive direction toward juvenile justice policy, which for most of my career has been going in the opposite direction.”

Caldwell examined all 109 Youth Offender Parole Hearings that took place during the first six months of 2014 after the law went into effect, as well as the transcripts of 107 of those hearings, to find out what factors influenced an inmate’s likelihood of release.

Caldwell found that 43 percent of juvenile lifers were granted parole. Governor Jerry Brown reversed 11 of the parole board’s decisions — as is within his power for homicides. In total, 35 men from 22 prisons were released over the study period. Four factors significantly influenced their hearing outcomes, according to the transcript analysis: the offender’s age when the crime occurred; the number of disciplinary infractions; the amount of time since the last infraction; and the risk assessment rating. The number of juvenile offenders who were granted parole was about 11 percent higher than adults sentenced to life in California, and they were, on average, 9.2 years younger.

But SB 260 is not without its flaws. The state’s juvenile lifers may qualify for parole a decade earlier than adult lifers, but they spend an average of 27 years imprisoned before being granted parole. The Supreme Court has ruled that juvenile offenders deserve a “meaningful” shot at a full life after prison, and it’s uncertain whether or not a former felon in his or her 40s still has a chance to re-connect with aging family members, find a rewarding career, and start a family of their own.

In addition, the same factors influence parole board decisions for juvenile and adult lifers, indicating that YOPHs aren’t necessarily taking into account juveniles’ hindered impulse control and heightened sensitivity to reward and peer pressure. “The law says they have to give great weight to these hallmark features of youth, but at the same time they’re using criteria that are set up for adult offenders,” Caldwell says. California’s risk assessment tool, for example, considers a criminal’s young age a risk factor for re-offense, rather than a mitigating one.

“SB 260 is a step in the right direction,” Caldwell says, “but it doesn’t go far enough.”