The California Legislature is considering legislation to improve chances for parole of inmates sentenced to lengthy prison terms for crimes committed at age 25 or younger.
The measure is AB1308 by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz.
“AB1308 would align public policy with scientific research. This measure would expand eligibility of the youth parole hearing process to (those) 25 or under when they committed a crime for which they received a lengthy or life sentence for a youth offender parole hearing,” said Stone.
The bill is an expansion of SB260 (2013) and SB261 (2015), which require the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) to consider the youthfulness of the offender as a mitigating factor when considering parole suitability.
“Since the passage of SB260 and SB261, motivation to focus on rehabilitation has increased,” Stone said. “An offender is more likely to enroll in school, drop out of a gang or participate in positive programs if they can sit before a parole board sooner … and have a chance of being released.”
One of those who would be impacted by AB1308 is Jose Rivera, 45, who is serving a 47-years-to-life sentence for kidnap and robbery and has been incarcerated for 22 years.
“I was 23 when I committed my crime, but mentally I was a kid,” said Rivera. “I remember laughing and telling people I would do something one day that would give me 10 to 20 years, but I didn’t know what that meant.”
In his 22 years of incarceration, Rivera has participated in various support groups and will be graduating next year with an associate degree.
“I didn’t want to become the person that I was when I first came in. That was the motivation for me to attend these self-help groups and attend college,” Rivera said. “I wanted to better myself, and if the opportunity presented itself, I want to demonstrate how I have changed into a different person.”
During his incarceration, Rivera received one disciplinary infraction in 1996 for disobeying orders. Without AB1308, Rivera would not be eligible for a parole hearing until 2041, when he will be 70 years old.
“Scientific evidence and studies from universities all confirm that brain development of … the parts affecting judgment and decision-making, do not fully develop until the early to mid-20s,” according to the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which supports AB1308.
Commenting on AB1308, Kid CAT Chairman Charlie Spence said, “To finally see the acknowledgement of the science of brain development extend to its proper age is an inspiration to us all.
“As a juvenile offender group, we recently extended our membership age to 25, because it is important for us to offer the same rights we are afforded to those who may have been older when they committed their crimes but still did not possess a fully mature brain when they did so.”
The California District Attorneys Association and the San Diego County District Attorney oppose AB1308, stating, “We challenge the sweeping generalization embedded in the bill that holds all persons under the age of 25 to a lower standard of culpability just as we did in 2015 when Senate Bill 261 was introduced.”
The association added, “There are no incentives in AB1308 for these adult offenders to pursue education, vocational training or to attend AA meetings to be eligible. They just have to do their time.”
Travis Westly, 34, who was sentenced to 17-years-to-life for second-degree murder and gang enhancement at the age of 23, said, “Nothing I have done is for the board or for release because I never thought that was an option. Everything I have ever done during my incarceration has been about making amends.”
Westly, who has been incarcerated 11 years, has participated in and taught various support groups. He will be graduating in July with a bachelor of science degree with emphasis on criminology and is currently enrolling for a master’s degree in business.
“There’s this idea that this bill will get people to the board sooner — and there will be some form of mass release — but that is not the case. We still must take the steps necessary to ensure that we no longer pose a threat to society,” Westly added.
If the proposed legislation is signed into law, the bill will require parole hearings for qualifying youth offenders by Jan. 1, 2020.