They received those sentences because their crimes are uniquely heinous and include one or more factors known as “special circumstances” that can include, the murder of public safety officers or officials, murders for financial gain, the use of torture, murders of multiple victims, prior convictions for murder, the use of bombs or explosives, the murder of a witness or juror, lying in wait to commit the murder, the use of poisons, drive by shootings, and murders that are also hate crimes.
These are crimes that are death penalty eligible, however, prosecutors offer LWOP as an alternative to a potential death sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.
SB 94 is based on the simplistic and poorly researched premise that, based on arrest statistics alone, criminals age out of crime.
The bill’s author, Senator Dave Cortese, argues that “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.” This is based on a report published by The Sentencing Project.
Both the press release and the study suffer from a glaring omission. Neither make the connection between age and the crimes for which the offender was sentenced.
Cortese says that, based on executive commutations, the murder recidivism rate is “0 percent.” That’s false as most of those commutations have occurred within the last few years – hardly a sufficient timeframe to fully analyze recidivism rates. It also ignores the 22 percent of murders and increasing homicide arrest numbers of the over 40 age group. More on that later.
SB 94, if enacted into law, would allow the following categories of convicted murderers (petitioners) to be eligible for parole review:
- Victims of childhood abuse, sexual violence or human trafficking.
- Veterans whose conduct in the offense was related to trauma experienced in the military.
- Those with cognitive impairment, intellectual disability, or mental illness.
- Those whose age, time served, or diminished physical condition are determined to reduce their risk for future violence.
What murderer cannot make the case that they fit into one or more of these categories?
Ironically, California under Prop 57, has already made non-LWOP youthful and elderly offenders eligible for early parole review.
Further, why are ordinary victims not a protected class in the way that peace officers and public officials are? Is a murderer who kills a state legislator worse than one who kills your loved one?
As a former peace officer, I am relieved that a police officer’s murderer will never be released. Shouldn’t every victim’s life be worth the same? That’s known as deterrence.
Lawmakers need look no further than the California Attorney General’s office 2022 report on homicides to discover that murders do not age out of crime in the way described by the bill’s proponents.
In 2022, 22 percent of homicide arrestees (327 cases) were aged 40 and over, an increase of 11.81 percent over the last ten years when compared to the 276 cases in 2013.
In the same ten year period, at least 2,951 victims were allegedly killed by so-called “aged-out” criminals. I say at least because it is possible that the number of victims is higher as one arrest does not necessarily equal only one murdered victim.
It is also possible that the age of homicide arrestees decline with age because many multiple murderers are already aging in prison serving life sentences, a phenomena known as incapacitation.
Proponents of SB94 paint a Dickensian picture of criminal lives challenged by domestic violence and child abuse, psychologically damaged veterans, the mentally ill, the elderly, and the young. That’s a lot of people and most don’t murder.
You can bet that defense attorneys made good use of these issues during the trial and plea negotiations that led to a conviction and sentence of life without parole. Many have exhausted multiple attempts to have their convictions overturned on appeal and failed. Now, SB 94 is attempting to unleash a legal Trojan Horse on Californians based on faulty statistics that will have dire consequences.
Murder is a human tragedy on many levels. Most of all to the victims.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.