SACRAMENTO -- Over 14,000 inmates in California prisons who were convicted of serious crimes in their youth and sentenced as adults are now eligible for early parole hearings under new state laws.
SB 261, a youth offender parole law that went into effect in January of 2016 raised the age of eligibility for these parole hearings. Under a 2014 law, youth offenders who committed crimes before the age of 18, many of whom faced life sentences, became eligible for parole hearings after serving between just 15 and 25 years behind bars. This 2016 amendment to the law includes youth offenders who committed their crimes before the age of 23.
The new law sites the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults and takes into account their subsequent growth and maturity. This consideration follows a Supreme Court ruling that highlighted scientific research showing parts of the brain that affect judgement and decision-making are not fully developed for many people until they are in their 20s.
Some say the laws give youth offenders a second chance at a fair sentence.
"I was looking at time that I couldn't comprehend, I was looking at consequences for actions that I never thought of that were now biting me in the butt. Like, this is real, you just threw your life away," a man named David said.
David chose to keep his last name private because he is in the process of turning his life around. He was convicted of second degree murder in San Luis Obispo County in the 90s. He told FOX40 he stabbed a rival gang member to death at a party when he was just 18 years old.
"Sincerely, I regret what I did, and I have remorse for what I did and I wish it could have been me instead of him," David said.
David said he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison and was released in 2014 after serving 16 years and showing he was rehabilitated. Although the new parole laws did not specifically lead to his release, he believes they set the groundwork that changed the atmosphere at his parole hearings. He said by his second parole hearing which occurred after SB 260 went into effect, the entire atmosphere had changed.
"For the first time they were talking about my age, about how young I was," David said.
But others say the new laws benefit prisoners, some of whom are convicted murderers, at the expense of their victims.
"I can understand the philosophy and the application of that law, but to have it blanket anyone who committed these offenses before a certain age, doesn't take in all the facts and what about victim's rights. Is this fair to the victims families?" San Benito County District Attorney Candice Hooper said.
Hooper recently fought to keep a convicted serial rapist and murderer behind bars after he was granted an early parole hearing in April 2016. Gustavo Marlow Jr. was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing two young women in Hollister in the 1980s and then raping and assaulting a prison laundry worker in Stockton. He was sentenced to 66 years to life in prison, but had this parole hearing decades before his family expected him to be eligible.
"There needs to be some parameters, to have a serial rapist, murderer qualify is unbelievable," Hooper said.
Hooper's hard work to re-build the case and the community's emotional plea to the parole board are both credited with keep Marlow Jr. behind bars. He was denied parole in April and is not eligible for parole again for another 15 years.
"But if we all hadn't banded together, that may not have happened," a victim's friend named Marcelyn said.
Marcelyn said she thought youth offenders who were manipulated by the gang life or who aided in crimes they did not commit should be given a second chance. However, she fears violent offenders who would still be a danger to society should not get the right to a parole hearing when it re-traumatizes the victim's families.
"The only way you're gonna know that things are safe is if you go," Marcelyn said.
David said he understood why victim's families did not want violent offenders like murderers out of prison.
"I'm not sure I would want someone who killed my family member out of prison,"David said.
However, David is using his past to build a new future. Now out of prison and married, he is a youth mentor for at risk teens in Sacramento.
David said the new laws introduce the possibility of a better future to youth offenders and inspire inmates in prisons all across California to change their behavior.
"If you have hope, even the slightest bit, it can change your life," David said.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or CDCR confirmed that raising the age of eligibility from 17 to 22 years old accounted for 10,464 youth offenders being eligible parole hearings. The CDCR said that so far 1,265 of those 14,337 youth offenders have had parole hearings and that 347 were granted parole while 776 were denied and the remaining offenders hearings were either rescheduled, postponed or had stipulations.