Senate Passes Senator Cortese’s Bill Allowing Judicial Review of Old Sentences

The State Senate passed a bill by Senator Dave Cortese on Wednesday that would allow judges to review the cases of people sentenced to life-without-parole if the person has been incarcerated for at least 25 years.

SB 94 would authorize judges to use their discretion to consider which of these decades-old cases would be eligible for evaluation by the Board of Parole Hearings. The parole board only grants parole to about 16 percent of petitioners. The case would then be evaluated by the Governor before the inmate would be released.

“SB 94 would allow a small population of the oldest incarcerated Californians to petition a judge for a parole hearing. People who could demonstrated their complete rehabilitation after decades in prison would face three levels of intense evaluation: the judge, the Board of Parole Hearings, and the Governor,” said Senator Cortese (D-San Jose). “Elder people who have turned their lives around after decades behind bars would have an opportunity to rejoin society instead of continuing to contribute to mass incarceration. It’s time to put these cases in line with California’s modern justice system.”

Research overwhelmingly shows that people age out of violent crime. A person’s propensity toward violence peaks in their twenties (before the full development of the prefrontal cortex) then rapidly declines by age 40, and continues to fall with age. The recidivism rate for individuals who were sentenced to life without parole and then granted a commutation and released is zero percent.

SB 94 would allow a person to petition for judicial review if their offense occurred before June 5, 1990, if they have served a minimum of 25 years, and if they were convicted to life without parole.

In recent years, the Legislature has modified extreme sentencing laws that contributed to mass incarceration in California. Various laws have allowed courts to consider “mitigating factors” that may have influenced a person’s behavior. Under SB 94, judges would be able to consider mitigating factors that were not previously considered in court — including whether the person was victimized by domestic violence, brutal childhood abuse, or racial bias in the justice system.

For example, many of the inmates eligible under SB 94 are women who were coerced into participating in a crime by their abuser. Under SB 94, judges would also be able to consider a person’s advanced age and reduced risk to public safety.

SB 94 is sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Felony Murder Elimination Project, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Families United to End Life Without Parole, Center for Employment Opportunity, FAMM, and The Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition.