By Robert Hansen | Special to The OBSERVER

The state Senate on Wednesday passed a bill 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, according to a press release.

Authored by Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), Senate Bill 94, which passed by a 21-12 vote, would authorize judges to use their discretion to consider which cases would be eligible for evaluation by the Board of Parole Hearings.

The case then would be evaluated by the governor before the incarcerated person would be released, according to the press release.

The parole board grants parole to only about 16% of petitioners.

Data courtesy of the United States Sentencing Commission

Daniel Tautfield, project director for the Felony Murder Elimination Project, said the bill is the result of decades of hard work by people serving life without parole, those who previously served the sentence and the family members of individuals now serving life without parole.

“The coalition of organizations who are carrying this vital piece of legislation came together three years ago and we are so honored to carry this important bill,” Tautfield said.

He added that the most challenging aspect of getting SB 94 passed is the amount of disinformation that is mobilized against it.

“This is a very simple, commonsense, modest bill,” Tautfield said. “Yet there are forces within California that want to maintain the unjust aspects of our criminal justice system and they are very effective at spreading inaccurate and distorted information about who the bill affects and the process that SB 94 implements.”

Sen. Cortese’s office said SB 94 would allow a small population of the oldest incarcerated Californians to petition a judge for a parole hearing.

People who demonstrated complete rehabilitation after decades in prison would face three levels of intense evaluation: the judge, the parole board and the governor.

“[Elderly] 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,” Cortese said in the press statement. “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. The United States Sentencing Commission found in 2017 that older offenders are substantially less likely to recidivate following release compared to younger cohorts.

Data courtesy of the United States Sentencing Commission

Among offenders released younger than age 21, 67.6% were rearrested compared to 13.4% of those released age 65 or older, according to the commission.

The pattern is consistent across age groups: as age increases, recidivism by any measure declines. Older offenders who do recidivate do so later in the follow-up period, do so less frequently and commit less-serious recidivism offenses on average.

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 sentenced 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, childhood abuse or racial bias in the justice system.

Tautfield said too many people who are trapped in sentences that do not reflect California’s current view of justice are serving life without parole.

“These individuals were sentenced decades ago when our legal system was completely different than it is today,” Tautfield said. “We need to allow judges to do what they do best, which is to review these cases and ensure that they continue to be in the interest of justice.”

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

The bill is a third of the way to becoming law and now must pass through Assembly committees before a floor vote, then going to the governor should it pass.

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 and several other organizations.