youthful offender law

At the time that Defendant Sirhan B. Sirhan was sentenced for first degree murder, he was 24 years old. It was 1969 and courts did not distinguish between younger and older offenders for purposes of sentencing. However, things have changed.

Our legal system has evolved in its treatment of criminal culpability and punishment for youthful offenders as our knowledge of science has grown. Starting in 2005, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional for anyone under 18-years old. Slowly, over time the law evolved to an understanding that youth are “constitutionally different…for purposes of sentencing for several reasons based not only on common sense – on what “any parent knows” – but on science and social science as well.’ (Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U. S. 460; People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal. 4th 261,274.)

With the ground-breaking neuro-science discoveries over the years, including the finding that the human brain is not fully developed until its mid-twenties, California has further evolved its way of thinking regarding youthful offenders. Penal Code section 3051, section 3046, sub sec. (c) and section4801, sub sec. (c) were passed to reflect society’s increased knowledge and awareness of how youths’ minds think and process information and accordingly how they act differently and are therefore less culpable than their older counterparts. The law provides youthful offenders who are serving life sentences that are less than 25-years to life, like Defendant, the possibility of release after 20 years of imprisonment (section 3051, sub d. (b)(2).

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that young people must be sentenced differently:

Children have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” leading to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking…Children “are more vulnerable…to negative influences and outside pressures”, including from their family and peers; they have little “control over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings…a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievable depravity”(Miller, supra 567 U.S. at p. 471)

In California, these new laws and understanding of brain development now require a Board of Parole to  “give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the prisoner in accordance with relevant case law.” (Pen. Code §4801, sub sec. (c).)

The law is “designed to ensure [youthful offenders] will have a meaningful opportunity for release no more than 25 years into their incarceration.”(Ibid.)

Sirhan Sirhan, who was only 24 years old at the time he was convicted and sentenced to a life crime, was permitted, under the law, to bring forth evidence of his youth-related mitigation for consideration by the Board, something he could not do at the time he was sentenced in 1969.  (Pen. Code §3051, sub sec. (b); Pen. Code§4801, sub sec. (c); In re Cook (2019) 7 Cal.5th 439.)  

In California, these new laws and understanding of brain development now require a Board of Parole to  “give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the prisoner in accordance with relevant case law.” (Pen. Code §4801, sub sec. (c).)

At the hearing on August 27, 2021, Sirhan Sirhan’s 16thparole hearing, the Board made clear they were considering all applicable laws, including “youthful offender laws”.  

The Board considered Sirhan Sirhan’s traumatic childhood, which included experiencing atrocities when his childhood neighborhood in Palestine was bombed and pillaged leading to his family’s displacement.  Under the law, this evidence must be viewed as mitigation and given great weight in conjunction with evidence of Sirhan Sirhan’s rehabilitation.  The Board also considered Sirhan’s dramatically improved behavior over the last 53 years of imprisonment.    

Read the Board’s Ruling Here regarding their thorough and thoughtful consideration of the laws and facts of Sirhan’s case.

Parole Board Ruling

Elder Inmate

As a result of the state’s prison overcrowding, a federal court on February 10, 2014, ordered the state to implement a parole process for inmates 60 years or older and who have been incarcerated for at least 25 years. In response, the state implemented the Elderly Parole Program. Subsequently, Assembly Bill 3234 (Chpt. 334, 9/30/20)modified the age to inmates who are 50 years and older and who have been incarcerated for at least 20 years.

Inmates Who Are Eligible for an Elderly Parole Hearing
The Elderly Parole Program gives inmates a parole suitability hearing once they are both age 50 and have served 20 years of continuous incarceration. Inmates sentenced to fixed, determinate terms as well as those sentenced to life with the possibility of parole are eligible for the program. Inmates who are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or who are sentenced to death are not eligible for the program.

Factors the Board Considers at an Elderly Parole Hearing
At an elderly parole hearing, the hearing panel will give special consideration to the inmate’s advanced age, long-term confinement, and diminished physical condition, if any, when determining the inmate’s suitability for parole. In addition, these same factors are also taken into consideration by the Board’s forensic clinical psychologists when they prepare risk assessments for elderly parole hearings.

A 2017 Corrections Outcome Evaluation Report indicates that prisoners over the age of 55 are significantly less likely to recidivate than those who are 25 or younger

Findings suggests that there are diminishing returns to very long sentences, even for homicide, and that the vast majority of individuals released after serving a sentence for homicide are not dangerous. An abundance of research suggests that lengthening already-long prison sentences has little to no deterrent effect on violent crime.

An important reason for the significant length of homicide sentences is fear that those who have killed before will eventually kill again. It matters whether this popular belief is actually true. It’s imperative that Californian’s know that people who commit murder are least likely to reoffend compared to other violent offenders. In fact, data shows that those convicted of property crimes are much more likely to recidivate than those convicted of a serious crime. Violent offenders have slightly lower average rear rest rates(71.3%) than property-crime offenders (82.1%), drug offenders (76.9%), or public-order offenders (73.6%).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is the primary statistical agency of the DOJ, their research represents the largest cross section of criminal justice data available for analyzing recidivism rates by crime type. Taken as a group, the BJS studies suggest that individuals released after serving homicide sentences generally reoffend at a lower rate than individuals released after committing other kinds of crimes. Furthermore, in California, a study examining parole releases for prisoners serving life sentences discover that of the 860murder-prisoners paroled by the board after 1995, only five had new-crime reincarcerations for any crime (less than 1%) and none recidivated through crimes potentially subject to life imprisonment, indicating a lower recidivism rate than many other studies.

When we look to the law, in re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal. 4th 1181,“Evidence of the inmate’s rehabilitation and suitability for parole can override the gravity of the commitment offense by indicating the conduct is unlikely to reoccur.”

With five decades of behavior-free living, education, positive programming which is evidence-based, low to non-existent risk assessment scores, situational violent encounters which Mr. Sirhan did not retaliate, the law must consider his age and the very low likelihood of his chance of recidivism.

The Board, looking at all of the factors above, found that Sirhan Sirhan should be recommended for parole release.

Sirhan Franklin Sentencing Memorandum