Building Upon the Example of California

Relatives of inmates reach through a prison fence as they stand to see their family members during a protest rally against pr
Relatives of inmates reach through a prison fence as they stand to see their family members during a protest rally against prison abuse in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Thousands rallied Friday in Georgia to demand the prosecution of top officials fired in a prison abuse scandal that threatens to unseat the governing pro-Western party in the country's Oct. 1 parliamentary election. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law SB9, which grants juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without parole that have served at least 15 years the chance to petition for a new sentence. The courts would then have the ability to lower their sentence to 25 years to life if the juvenile offenders demonstrate remorse and work towards rehabilitation.

Having formerly served as an appellate prosecutor, conventional wisdom would indicate that I would oppose such a law... After all, for years I argued to the courts that convicted criminals, some of them juveniles, deserved the sentences they had received, and these sentences were often decades long, or even life terms. When a person commits a violent crime, justice and public safety call for serious consequences, regardless of the age of the offender. As an appellate prosecutor, I argued that for a crime as heinous as murder, justice required the offender, even a juvenile offender, to spend the rest of his or her life in prison. How else can we be certain that the person will not take another life in the future? Furthermore, by committing murder, an offender unilaterally terminates the future of the victim and forever alters the lives of the victim's family and friends. Why, then, should an offender, even a juvenile, be given a second chance?

Odd as it may seem, however, I applaud the step that California has taken to give juvenile offenders sentenced to life without the parole the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed and possibly reduced. I have come to realize that no child, not even one who has taken the life of another, is beyond redemption, and therefore, should never be sentenced to die in prison.

I came to this realization when I ventured out of my comfortable office in the attorney general's building and actually visited people in prison, an experiment I would encourage all prosecutors and judges to conduct. I agreed to teach a law class at a local prison for women, where the inmates were enrolled in a college program offered by Lipscomb University. There I met women previously unknown to me, some of whom had been convicted as juveniles for crimes as serious as murder and were serving life sentences. As I came to know them over the course of the semester, I saw that they defied the labels that society -- and I -- had placed on them.

These women were not merely criminal defendants, cases to be argued on appeal, or department of correction ID numbers. They were people like me: filled with potential to do good, eager to learn, capable of great kindness and compassion, desiring to make the world a better place... It is true that they had made terrible mistakes, but so had I. Unlike these women, however, society had not defined me based solely on the worst thing I had ever done.

I began to wake up to the fact that the lines that we like to think separate us, even the line we draw between law-abiding citizens and convicted felons, tend to dissipate in the warmth of human relationship. From a safe and sterile distance, I previously could have argued that no convicted murderer, no matter how young they were at the time of the offense, should be granted a second chance. Now, however, in light of my friendship with convicted murderers, I must support California's recognition that people can and do change.

Young people in particular have the potential for dramatic change. When a person is 16 years old, for example, her mind and character are not fully formed. The law recognizes that juveniles are physiologically and psychologically different from adults. While we cannot overlook the need for accountability and public safety, we must pursue such ends with the understanding that children have the capacity to grow and develop into something much greater and more profound than the worst moment of their young lives. We must not give up on our children, even when they have made terrible mistakes.

We as a society must leave room for people, particularly juveniles, to change for the better. Whereas I once viewed people who break the law as worthy of nothing but condemnation and punishment, my outlook has changed, and I now see them as not too different from me. And because were I in their shoes, I would want to be given a second chance, I must therefore support California extending to juveniles that opportunity. California has made a step to acknowledge that new life is possible. My hope is that other states will follow and build upon this example.