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Pathways to Freedom: The Evolution of the Parole Process for Youth Lifers in California

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Published onAug 23, 2023
Pathways to Freedom: The Evolution of the Parole Process for Youth Lifers in California


This paper explores the evolution of resentencing/parole mechanisms for youth lifers in California through the lens of lived experience. We use a case study approach with a triangulation of data sources, including qualitative interviews, parole hearing transcripts, and state legislation. For three purposively selected cases, we analyze the emotional experience of seeking resentencing/parole and analyze how the parole board determined suitability for release based on standard parole factors as well as “youth-specific” mitigation considerations. In all three cases, the parole board leaned heavily on standard parole factors such as demonstration of remorse and insight, compliant prison behavior, and participation in rehabilitation programming. However, as California legislation evolved from 2012 onward, the parole board gave greater weight to youthfulness as mitigation rather than a risk factor for continued criminality. These case studies provide a rich lens to understand how resentencing/parole policies and procedures are experienced by individuals whose freedom is at stake.

Keywords: JLWOP, Parole, Case Study, Life Sentences, Qualitative Criminology

What does a meaningful pathway to freedom look like for a person serving a life sentence for a crime committed as a child? In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama (2012) ruled unconstitutional the sentencing of minors to life without the possibility of parole under mandatory sentencing schemas. In 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana determined this ruling to be retroactive. Following these decisions, states were tasked with providing a “meaningful opportunity for release” for people who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under mandatory sentencing schemas when they were under age 18 (~2800 people, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 2022). These decisions gave states wide discretion in complying with these rulings (Grisso & Kavanaugh, 2016; Scott et al., 2015), resulting in varied and arbitrary resentencing and parole processes across states and jurisdictions (Hoestery, 2017; Maas, 2018; Quandt, 2020). To date, it is unclear what these pathways to freedom entail or how they impact the individuals experiencing them.

Since 2012, the state of California passed several laws granting opportunities for resentencing/parole for people serving juvenile life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP), as well as those serving juvenile life with the possibility of parole (JLWP) and those sentenced to life in prison as young adults (i.e., 18-25-year-olds). In this study, we present and analyze three cases of seeking resentencing/parole through different legal mechanisms for youth lifers (we use “youth lifers” in this paper to reference this group more expansively to include young adults and “juvenile lifers” when we refer to legislation impacting those sentenced for crimes committed under age 18), as California legislation on resentencing and parole practices evolved over time. We seek to answer the following research questions: How do youth lifers experience seeking resentencing/parole under these various mechanisms? What is the role of standard parole factors, including remorse/insight, evidence of rehabilitation, and disciplinary infractions in these hearings? What is the role of the “hallmark features of youth” in these hearings? This study provides insight into the evolution of youth-specific parole policies through the lens of lived experience.

Policy Background

The Supreme Court

Since 2005, several Supreme Court decisions have curbed the use of extreme sentencing (e.g., the death penalty and life without parole sentences) for juveniles (i.e., minors) sentenced in adult criminal court. In six decisions – Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), Roper v. Simmons (2005), Graham v. Florida (2010), Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Jackson v. Hobbs (2012), Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), and Jones v. Mississippi (2021), the Supreme Court emphasized that differences between youth and adults in maturity and accountability evoke the protections of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment (Barbee, 2011; Kennedy, 2014; Rovner, 2021).

In 2005, Roper v. Simmons first articulated how youthfulness differentiates minors from adults regarding criminal offending. In 2010, the decision rendered in Graham v. Florida reified these mitigating characteristics and equated JLWOP sentences for people convicted of non-homicide offenses to the death penalty, establishing these sentences as unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment (Graham v. Florida, 2010). Graham also set a precedent that the characteristics of youth must be taken into account when considering the appropriateness of extreme sentences (Graham v. Florida, 2010, pp. 67-68). Building on Roper and Graham, the combined ruling in Miller and Jackson (2012) held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses violate the Eighth Amendment and that minors whose crimes were impacted by factors associated with “youth” and “adolescence” must be given the meaningful opportunity for release based on “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” (Miller v. Alabama, 2012). Miller requires that judges give weight to the mitigating features of youth in determining the appropriateness and proportionality of a sentence (Miller v. Alabama, 2012, p. 480).1 This case was key to eliminating JLWOP sentences in numerous states that used a mandatory JLWOP sentencing scheme, but it did not abolish JWLOP sentences altogether as discretionary JLWOP is still allowed, so long as sentencers consider certain factors related to youth (Barbee, 2011; Kennedy, 2014; Hoestery, 2017; Hussemann & Siegel, 2020; Mills, Dorn, & Hritz, 2015, Scott et al., 2015; Benekos & Merlo, 2019).

Four years later, Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) held that the decision rendered in Miller should apply retroactively, such that all persons currently serving a mandatory JLWOP sentence would be entitled to an opportunity for resentencing. At that time, approximately 2800 persons were serving such a sentence (Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 2022). Even with this sweeping legislation, the implementation of retroactive resentencing processes was left to each state, with many states delaying implementation and/or continuing to use JLWOP upon resentencing (Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 2022; Finholt et al., 2020). Though Montgomery stressed that the use of JLWOP should be exceedingly rare — so rare that lower courts heard many challenges about JLWOP’s constitutionality in certain cases — Jones v. Mississippi (2021) established that prosecutors and judges were free to pursue JLWOP as a sentence so long as state’s penal code allowed it. Currently, 17 states retain the use of JLWOP (Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 2023).

The issue of providing a “meaningful opportunity for release,” a hallmark feature of Graham, Miller, and Montgomery, set the stage for states to design and implement their resentencing and/or parole procedures. The Supreme Court provided some suggestions for the resentencing mandate in Montgomery, such as holding resentencing hearings for each individual or providing automatic parole eligibility after a set duration of time served. Whereas some states (such as California) had already begun to apply Miller retroactively starting in 2012, others (such as Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, and Virginia) had to find ways to do so after Montgomery (Equal Justice Initiative, 2021).

Once resentenced, parole decisions add a critical layer of gatekeeping and barriers to freedom (Newman, 1975; Medwed, 2008; Rhine, Petersilia, Reitz, 2016; Vîlcică 2018). The Supreme Court case Hayward v. Marshall (2010) concluded that there was no federal entitlement to parole and that it was up to the individual states to determine what evidentiary standard they would utilize for parole cases (Hatheway, 2017). As such, states function with largely discretionary parole systems, and they are not subject to examination under the 14th Amendment, the Due Process Clause, or in matters related to “life, liberty, or property” (Bell, 2019). Though parole boards often have considerations and guidelines specified in their regulatory policies, they still employ much discretion. Some states have presumptive parole systems, meaning that a statute directs parole boards to vote in favor of release unless certain factors are found. However, as Bell (2019) argues, these factors are often so ambiguous that they provide little restraint on discretion. In sum, parole policies yield varied and inconsistent decisions within and across states, impacting juvenile and youth lifer cases (Ball, 2009; Hritz, 2021; Medwed, 2008; Mock, 2008; Thomas & Reingold, 2017).

The Evolution of California Law on Youth Lifer Cases

Since 2012, the California legislature has created and implemented several resentencing and parole opportunities for juvenile lifers (see Table 1). Uniquely, California has implemented a “Youth Offender Parole Hearing” (YOPH) structure, which is designed to give special consideration to youth mitigation (i.e., Miller) factors in parole decisions (CDCR, n.d.) Moreover, as of 2017, policymakers have applied the intent of Miller beyond the select number of JLWOP cases, creating a path to release for JLWP, de facto juvenile lifers, and people subject to extreme or lengthy sentences whose offenses occurred at the age of 25 years or younger.

Table 1: California Legislative Overview

CA State Law


SB 9 (2012)

Provided release opportunities for those sentenced to JLWOP by enabling lifers to petition for resentencing. If the resentencing hearing is granted and results in a shorter sentence, youthful lifers are eligible through the standard CA parole process.

SB 260 (2014)

Established Youth Offender Parole Hearings (YOPH), requiring the board to give “great weight” to the diminished culpability of youth (under 18) in making their decision for those serving an indeterminate life sentence. Individuals will be eligible for YOPH after 15 years if they were serving a determinate sentence, 20 years if serving a sentence less than 25 years to life, and 25 years if the sentence is 25 years to life.

SB 261 (2015)

Raises the age of those eligible for a YOPH to those who committed their crime under the age of 23.

AB 1308 (2017)

Raises the age of those eligible for a YOPH to those who committed their crime under the age of 25.

SB 394 (2017)

Grants those sentenced to JLWOP eligible for a YOPH after 25 years served; eliminates the need for resentencing.

Senate Bill (SB) 9 was among the nation’s first JLWOP sentencing reforms, passed by the California legislature in September 2012. SB 9 created a resentencing mechanism for individuals serving a JLWOP sentence for homicide who had served at least 15 years of their sentence. Eligible juvenile lifers were allowed to submit petitions to the sentencing court and prosecuting agency outlining their remorse and progress toward rehabilitation. They also had to state that at least one of the following criteria applied to their case: they were convicted of felony murder or aiding and abetting the homicide offense; they had no prior violent convictions; they had an adult codefendant; or that they pursued rehabilitation through rehabilitative, vocational, or educational programming if available or similar self-study, or showed evidence of remorse. If the sentencing court found the evidence in the petition to be true, the court held a resentencing hearing, which would determine whether to sustain or recall the JLWOP sentence. The law required judges to review eight factors related to the petitioner's criminal and developmental history (e.g., evidence of rehabilitation, childhood trauma and/or neglect, and evidence that contact with family was maintained during incarceration). If the sentence was not changed on the first attempt, individuals could reapply for resentencing after serving 20, 24, and 25 years. If JLWOP was recalled and the juvenile lifer was resentenced to an indeterminate life term (e.g., 25 years to life) on any of these attempts, they became eligible to petition for parole. While the bill gave weight to youth factors during resentencing and invited the Board of Parole Hearings to submit a recommendation to the court, there were no unique parole guidelines laid out following this resentencing phase (California Senate Bill No. 9, 2012).

This gap in parole consideration for juvenile lifers was remedied two years later. Senate Bill 260, passed in 2014, established Youth Offender Parole Hearings (YOPH), a specialized parole hearing process that requires the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) to give “great weight” to the diminished culpability of youth as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the individual when making their parole decisions (California Penal Code Section 4801, 2017). This process applies to individuals sentenced to any indeterminate or determinate juvenile life sentence (JWLP, JLWOP). Through SB 260, individuals became eligible to go before the BPH during their 15th year of incarceration if – either originally or through SB 9 resentencing – they received a determinate sentence (i.e., 25-50 years); during their 20th year if they received an indeterminate sentence less than 25 years to life, and during the 25th year if they received 25 years or greater to life sentence (SB 260, 2014). The process outlined in the bill allows statements from family members, friends, school personnel, faith leaders, and representatives from community-based organizations who knew the individual before the crime or who can comment on the individual's growth and maturity since the offense. It also specifies that psychological evaluations may be conducted by a licensed psychologist employed by the BPH to help provide evidence of “diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to that of adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the individual.” (California Senate Bill 260, 2014). Further, it states that the board will consider recommendations made to the board by the sentencing judge, prosecuting agency, sheriff, or any other interested party – consistent with existing statutes. This legislation was far-reaching in California, as it extended the “second look” review of mandatory JLWOP sentences required by the Supreme Court to youth sentences other than JWLOP (e.g., de facto life sentences, JLWP) and specifically incorporated the “youth factors” stated in Miller into parole hearings.

In 2015, Senate Bill 261 extended YOPHs from those convicted of a controlling offense that occurred when the person was under age 18 to those who were under age 23. Then, in 2017, California Assembly Bill (AB)1308 extended YOPHs to include those convicted of specific crimes when they were 25 years of age or younger. This extended the definition of “youth” in California far beyond the mandate of the Supreme Court.

AB 1308 was signed into law simultaneously as Senate Bill 394, which changed the process enacted under SB 9. Effectively, the law ensured that individuals sentenced to JLWOP in California would be eligible to receive a YOPH during their 25th year of incarceration, eliminating the need for a recall petition and resentencing hearing before a judge (as SB 9 required). SB 394 streamlined the process, making all JLWOP sentenced individuals automatically parole eligible after 24 years incarcerated. Similar to SB 9 and SB 260, the law aims to provide a “meaningful opportunity for release” and allows for testimony from friends and family members and psychological evaluations to be submitted as evidence. As such, SB 394 provided a blanket resentencing of juvenile lifers, converting their sentences from LWOP to 25 years to life and bringing California in line with other states (e.g., Massachusetts, Colorado) that granted automatic consideration for parole to juvenile lifers.

Prior Research on Parole for Youth Lifers

Throughout the United States, resentencing and parole policies for youth lifers are an evolving social issue with major consequences for those serving these sentences, their family members, and the family members of victims. The parole process is emotionally fraught and can involve years of preparation, as well as shattered hopes and unanticipated outcomes. A parole hearing opportunity can offer a glimmer of optimism for once elusive freedom, yet denial can lead to depression, despair, and suicidal ideation (West-Smith, Pogrebin, & Poole, 2000). This despair is compounded by the fact that most parole boards don’t tell individuals being reviewed what went wrong; rather, they simply issue a denial and new eligibility date (Rivera, 2020). The emotional experience of parole hearings for those who experience them is understudied and has yet to be examined for the JWLOP population.

As of 2022, six years after the landmark Montgomery decision, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (2022) reports that while 80% of the original ~2800 people serving JLWOP have been resentenced, approximately 835 have been released. Moreover, since Miller and Montgomery, a handful of new cases resulting in JLWOP sentences have occurred in the 24 states still permitting such a sentence. Due to the array of state variations in implementing and even extending Miller and Montgomery, scholars have begun to investigate factors impacting decisions to grant freedom to those serving JLWOP and other long-term juvenile and youth sentences (i.e., JWLP or virtual life). For example, Kokkalera (2022) examined the role of representation in JLWOP parole hearings, finding that whether the attorney was publicly funded or privately contracted affected the interval term imposed before the next parole hearing. Kokalerra and Singer (2022) also analyzed parole transcripts for 33 juvenile lifers denied parole, finding that parole board decisions were based on a highly selective set of concepts that do not directly map to the youth factors raised in Miller. Hence, a meaningful review of a juvenile life sentence may be intertwined with numerous other decision-making points, including those that are applied to all people serving life in prison for homicide offenses and those that are not specific to youth factors.

In California, Bell (2019) studied parole decisions for 426 people sentenced to juvenile life with the possibility for parole (JLWP) whose cases fell under SB 260, making them eligible for a specialized Youth Offender Parole Hearing (YOPH). She found that the level of rehabilitation assessed predicted parole decisions only if the individual was deemed “lowly” or “highly” rehabilitated in their record. For those whose rehabilitation was assessed to be more in the middle, the decisions to grant parole were arbitrary. Moreover, in her study, Black petitioners were less likely than white people to be granted parole even with other factors held constant. Further, being represented by a private attorney helped to increase the possibility of being granted parole. Based on these findings, Bell (2019) argues that despite the law referencing evidence of rehabilitation, YOPH decisions under SB260 were both “arbitrary and capricious.” Moreover, in a study of 107 YOPH transcripts conducted the year after SB 260 went into effect, Caldwell (2016) finds that references to the diminished capacity of youth might be hollow, as 90% of rejected parole bids made reference to one or more youth mitigation factors. That said, both of these studies were conducted at the beginning phases of SB 260 implementation and may not account for how the YOPH hearings have evolved since that time.

Studies on parole more generally (i.e., not specific to juvenile lifers) focus on the arbitrary nature of the parole hearing process. Scholars have found that evidence of rehabilitation and assessment of remorse are subjective factors that influence parole decisions (e.g., Caplan, 2007; Medwed, 2008; Young & Chimowitz, 2022). For example, Young and Chimowitz (2022) interviewed 25 California parole commissioners to identify what they seek in remorse statements. They found that parole commissioners attempt to assess a parole applicant’s remorse through the degree of introspection and type of tone used in discussing their crime; the respect with which they talk about or address their victim/victim’s next of kin, if present; their willingness to take full responsibility for their actions; their agency in seeking out treatment and rehabilitative programs; and, their internalization of a law-abiding mentality, among other factors (Young & Chimowitz, 2022). However, as there is no decisive way to determine what comprises remorse and, similarly, no way to prove its presence or absence completely, the authors argue that this factor is another way for parole commissioners to make arbitrary decisions.

Significance of Current Study

Through establishing the Youth Offender Parole Hearing (YOPH) process and its expanded eligibility to include different types of youth sentences and those 25 and younger, California is at the forefront of implementing progressive youth lifer resentencing and parole policies. However, little is known about how these policies are experienced by those seeking release or how these specifically designated youth offender parole processes actually operate in practice. The extent to which factors concerning youthfulness are incorporated into parole hearings and decisions are ambiguous, particularly in relation to standard parole considerations such as evidence of rehabilitation and record of disciplinary infractions, display of remorse, the seriousness of the committing offense, and victim impact (Caplan, 2007, Medwed, 2008; Thomas & Reingold, 2017; Vîlcică 2018).

In this study, we examine three California resentencing and parole policies for youth lifers using triangulated, qualitative evidence. These rich case studies serve as a human lens to understanding how the policies operate in practice, particularly in navigating the parole process. Investigating these questions can help to understand how efforts to implement Montgomery interface with the lived experiences of those seeking freedom.


This paper uses a comparative case study methodology, which involves an in-depth study of persons, groups, or events. While case studies are highly beneficial for granular-level analysis, the major limitation is that they are not generalizable (Yin, 2009). In this study, our cases are three people purposefully sampled from a longitudinal qualitative study of released youth lifers in California. Other papers have detailed information about sampling, recruitment, and methodology for the larger study that included 10 cases (Abrams, Canlione, & Applegarth, 2020; Abrams, Canlione, & Washington, 2022). For this analysis, we chose three cases that illustrate the progression of the major youth offender resentencing and parole policies in California over time (SB 9, SB 260, and SB 394; see Table 1). They were not selected to be representative of the larger sample. Each case, including the participants’ pseudonym, age, racial identity, time imprisoned, and corresponding law that facilitated release, is summarized in Table 2. All were male, had served 21-30 years in prison, and were in their mid-to-late 40s at the time of their first interview.

Table 2: Cases and Corresponding Law




Years Served

Age at first interview


CA Senate Bill 9 2012





CA Senate Bill 260 2014





CA Senate Bill 394 2017




For each case, we analyzed the following sources of data: in-depth qualitative interviews, parole transcripts, and the legislation that facilitated their resentencing and/or parole processes. Participants were interviewed up to four times between 2017 and 2021 by the first and second authors of this paper. Miguel participated in four, Kent participated in three, and David in two interviews. The qualitative interviews covered many topics, including life history, crime and sentencing, prison experiences, reentry, family reunification, and transition to a free society. The interviews lasted between 1-3 hours, and while the majority of these interviews were conducted in person, a few of the final interviews took place over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each interview was transcribed professionally and imported into Dedoose software for analysis and data retrieval. For this specific analysis, we focused on the participants’ accounts of their parole applications and hearings. These were largely recounted in the second interview of the qualitative series- totaling about 60 pages of transcription.

All parole transcripts for the three cases were collected through a public records request to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. These consisted of official, verbatim reports of parole hearings, constituting 88-181 pages per transcript for a total of 928 pages. Kent had five parole hearing transcripts, David had two, and Miguel had one. Miguel also had a resentencing hearing (under SB 9), but we did not have access to that transcript. For the policy review, three legislative mechanisms were examined as they pertained to each case, focusing on the language used in the legislation and criteria stated for resentencing and/or parole. Figure 1 offers a timeline of the legislation in relation to the three cases. Moreover, the policies are summarized in Table 1 and described in detail in the earlier section on “The Evolution of California Law on Youth Lifer Cases.”

Figure 1: Legislative Timeline and Case History

To triangulate data, the parole transcripts, interview transcripts, and respective legislation were each analyzed independently at first. Two researchers (the second and fourth authors of this paper) coded the interviews and parole transcripts, noting areas concerning emotions, parole considerations, and specific youth factors. Next, the major themes for each case were identified in the corresponding interview and parole transcripts and then cross-referenced to identify any overlaps or inconsistencies. As a team, we attended to how the relevant legislation shaped the parole and/or resentencing process, how it was implemented in practice, and how participants experienced their hearings. From this analysis, we compiled a case study for each participant, weaving together the interview and parole hearing data and relating this information to the policy.


In this section, we present a narrative summary of the three cases, focusing on the main research questions concerning the emotional toll of the experience, the use of standard parole factors, such as remorse, evidence of rehabilitation, and the seriousness of the crime, and the use of youth-specific mitigation factors involved in each case.

Senate Bill 9: Miguel

Miguel received a JLWOP sentence for a homicide crime committed at age 17. He spent 21 years in state prison and earned his freedom through resentencing and parole at age 41. When we first interviewed him, Miguel lived in the community for over two years. Miguel had a perfect prison record without any rule violations for the entirety of his incarceration. This is a nearly impossible feat, as the scoring system that assigned prison yards used to unilaterally place juvenile lifers on higher security (i.e., more violent) yards. Despite Miguel’s exemplary prison record, before SB 9, he would not have been eligible to go before the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH).

Sometime in 2010, when SB9 was an idea in progress, Miguel received a letter from a law clinic specializing in post-conviction representation for those sentenced to JLWOP. Miguel said that he was skeptical at first, recalling that the clinic had to convince him to let them represent him. He was also worried about having hope, fearing that a sense of hope for his future would detract him from accepting his life sentence. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet with the attorneys and decided to proceed with the petition.

The process leading up to Miguel’s resentencing hearing involved three and a half years of preparation, in which the team gathered mitigating evidence. For Miguel, this was a heavy emotional process. He was hesitant for his legal team and mitigation specialist to contact people from his past out of concern that it would resurface their own pain regarding his offense. For example, he recalled being willing to end his representation with the clinic over their desire to contact his former girlfriend to gather mitigating evidence:

I know they wanted to get information from her to get historical background, but I told them not to talk to her. […]. Freedom to me, I don’t care. I’d rather go on this alone. […] Really at the time I didn’t care if it meant me jeopardizing my freedom.

Miguel was also hesitant to share his personal story with the clinic staff, grappling with feeling unworthy of a second chance and the idea that he was less culpable for his homicide offense simply because he was young. He recalls the mitigation specialist on his case working with him to come to terms with how his youth factored into his responsibility: “It made me gentle with myself ‘cause at the time […] I was so black and white [regarding my culpability]. She was like, ‘no, you were a child,’ but I couldn’t see it.”

The preparation work was logistically challenging and emotionally trying, requiring him to come to terms with his crime in a new light. He had always taken full responsibility for his life crime and considered this to be part of making amends both spiritually and with the victim’s family. He did not want to defer blame in any way, but the emphasis on his youth provided additional context limiting Miguel’s culpability—which was challenging for him to accept. This was relevant in preparing Miguel’s statement in his petition, as his team told him he was taking too much responsibility. Despite the emotionally and practically burdensome process of seeking relief under SB 9, Miguel grew more hopeful. He remembered:

The SB 9 statute required Miguel to petition the court for resentencing and for that petition to be accepted before he could go before the judge for a resentencing hearing. Miguel recalls that this process necessitated he leave prison and go to county jail twice, once to file the petition and then again for the hearing. Before his hearing, Miguel remembered being handcuffed in the holding tank as his attorneys tried to limit his expectations, as it was not uncommon for judges to deliver their decisions later.

When Miguel finally went before the judge for his SB 9 hearing, the team from the clinic and his family were present in the courtroom. He recalls his attorney presenting his case for resentencing under SB 9’s criteria to the judge for “7-10 minutes.” When his defense finished, the district attorney (DA) opposed his resentencing, though Miguel felt she only opposed it because it was “her job.” Then the judge ruled, recalling his original JLWOP sentence and resentencing him 25 years to life.

He read everything that should’ve been met with the petition SB 9, and he’s like ‘I believe that you’ve changed, you’re a different person and you’ve rehabilitated.’ I think he just commended me for what I had to say and he sentenced me that day. He’s like ‘yeah, I agree with this law and I resentence you,’ and that was very joyous for us. My family, everyone is crying and everybody’s in tears.

After Miguel’s JLWOP sentence was recalled, Miguel then qualified for a Youth Offender Parole Hearing (YOPH) under SB 260. He was informed he would go to the parole board in four months. Miguel recalled that the presiding commissioner was known as one of the toughest, but aside from this, the hearing was relatively straightforward. The commissioners questioned Miguel on his controlling offense, his childhood and history before the crime, his insight, his prison record, and his parole plans. Miguel was prepared, his prison record was fully clean, and not one BPH commissioner nor the DA objected. He stated:

Yeah. I was gonna make it very difficult for them to say no to me. I don’t think they’ve ever had anyone with my sentence before them. With no violations, no infractions, no write-ups, nothing. I was like I’m ready, I’m ready to go in front of them and answer every question that they have. […] Even the DA didn’t oppose.

In the closing suitability statement, the BPH stated that Miguel was a classic example of the transient characteristics of youth and considered him to be rehabilitated. They found him suitable for parole and commended him on his rehabilitation. The transcript noted:

Specifically, Miguel, the first thing that we considered was the fact that you were a youth at the time that this crime occurred, and you certainly had, as was opined by the clinician in your Comprehensive Risk Assessment, the transient characteristics, probably one of the most classic signs that I’ve seen since we’ve been hearing 260 cases.


Juveniles are more capable of change than adults, their actions less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depraved character. […] Basically, what it means, sir, is the light went on for you when you realized the gravity of what you did, [...] and you changed because you could change because you were really young.

The relative uneventfulness of Miguel’s parole hearing and the unanimous agreement that he was suitable for parole is noteworthy. The BPH could find no reasonable cause to keep him in prison, but without being resentenced under SB 9, he would have never had the chance to go before the BPH. Additionally, petitioning for recall and resentencing—a more than three-year process—required extensive work from Miguel and his legal team from the law clinic but was necessary for Miguel to get to the BPH, who ultimately found unanimously that he posed no danger to society and was suitable for parole.

Senate Bill 260: Kent

Kent spent 30 years in a California state prison for a crime he committed at age 17. He was tried as an adult and began an indeterminate 25-to-life sentence (JLWP), going to adult prison just as he turned 18. Kent went before the BPH a total of five times, with two denials occurring under standard parole procedures and two more occurring under the YOPH process established by SB 260. On his fifth hearing, he was finally granted release. His story is relayed according to this progression.

At the beginning of Kent’s incarceration, he participated in what he described as common “prison politics,” such as gangs and illegal activity, sometimes keeping guard for others as they committed assaults and used drugs. Yet roughly ten years into his incarceration, he described maturing out of this behavior and participating in prison rehabilitation programming. Overall, in his 30 years spent in California prisons, he received only four write-ups for rule violations, none of which were for violent incidents.

Kent first became eligible for a parole hearing at age 34 in 2005, after 15 years of incarceration and several years before the Miller decision or SB 260 took root. The first time Kent went to the BPH, significant weight was placed on the heinousness of the crime, his criminal history before incarceration (minor offenses when Kent was as young as 15), and his in-prison behavior. Kent received a 5-year denial, and in closing, the commissioner stated:

One of the main factors that we took into consideration was the gravity of the offense. […] The other factor that we took into consideration, sir, is your criminal history. The record reflects that you have a criminal history dating back to when you were approximately 15 years of age, which reflects that you failed to profit from society’s attempts to correct your criminality.

This statement indicates that in this hearing, Kent’s minor offenses during his early teenage years (before his homicide conviction) were given weight in this parole decision—even more so than his lack of any violent offenses in prison; effectively, Kent’s youth counted as a negative factor in the commissioners’ suitability decision. Additionally, the commissioners emphasized the heinousness of the crime and, in doing so, implied that the seriousness of the crime meant that Kent and his co-defendants could not be considered youth. The commissioner stated:

When you say ‘just some dumb ass kids,’ I don’t see this as dumb ass kids. I don’t see this conduct as kids. You weren’t even fit for juvenile court because your actions were so serious. [..]. You weren’t just kids.

We interpret the commissioner’s statements as using Kent’s youth against him rather than in his favor, characterizing him as criminally sophisticated beyond his years because he started criminal offending so young. The BPH then recognizes the impulsivity present in Kent’s crime. Rather than linking it with youthfulness, they present this as an inherent character flaw.

The BPH continued to use youthfulness against his case in subsequent hearings, including in his third hearing, the first time he went before the YOPH under SB 260. After the board established that Kent had a troubled childhood riddled with abuse and homelessness (these could be considered contextual factors under Miller), the DA questioned why Kent chose not to ask for help or extract himself from his abusive home.

He didn’t do the most simple thing, such as going to the school and saying, hey look, I don’t have anybody taking care of me. How about some help here?” […] I think it’s disingenuous for him to say well, gee, it never occurred to think about grandma or grandpa, or anyone else.

In this initial YOPH, Kent said the process felt the same as a standard parole hearing, “just like all the others,” with the technical exception that he qualified as a youth offender under SB 260. He had also heard about “many denials” during the first year of SB 260 implementation, so he wasn’t optimistic. According to Kent, the hearing proceeded much like the previous two, with great weight placed on Kent’s decision-making as a youth and placing an onus on him to change his own circumstances, including an abusive home. The YOPH mentioned the hallmark features of youth but did not seem to have incorporated them meaningfully in their decision-making. This hearing was conducted during the first year following SB 260, and Kent believes that the short life of the process to date factored into what he experienced as a largely empty nod towards his youthfulness.

The second time Kent went up for a YOPH and his fourth overall hearing, he had little hope at first. He stated: “After the 16 months was passed, and they said they advanced my hearing, and people are, ‘Oh, you're gonna go home, man, 260, 260.’ I said, ‘Look. I already went to board under 260. I don't know what you're talking about you're gonna go home.’” During this hearing, the BPH again acknowledged Kent’s qualification as a “youth offender.” The board gave greater consideration to Kent’s age at the time of the offense, however, carrying out a discussion of the hallmark features of youth that served as mitigating factors in the case, which involved a group of youth committing the homicide. The psychologist’s report was also regarded as being supportive of the role of impulsivity, peer pressure, and a diminished understanding of consequences, which are all considered features of youth specified in Miller and subsequent rulings and statutes. The parole transcript quoted the evaluation as follows:

Not only did the perpetrators’ youth appear to play a significant role in reckless decision-making, but the context of being part of the group that was acting in concert almost certainly increased their already underdeveloped sense of responsibility. In other words, it’s very unlikely you would have committed such an act if you weren’t in the company of like-minded, angry juveniles.

During this fourth hearing, Kent thought things were going well, and the BPH might rule in his favor. When they denied him again, Kent began to study his previous parole transcripts more closely to try to figure out what he could do differently.

I was like, ‘Man, let me see what the hell they said. Why did they deny me?’ That's what I wanted to know is why did they deny me. I thought I was doing good. Just the fourth time, the fourth time I got denied, I was like, man. [...] I thought I was going home. I really did.

While Kent ultimately received another denial, for him, this hearing felt markedly different than the previous. He stated:

Huge difference. […] Just the way they looked at the whole overall thing because they acknowledged the fact that I was young, the culpability, diminished culpability—They acknowledged it verbally the first time because they had to, but you could see that they really were like, ‘Hey, he was a kid.’ It was different. The feeling was different.

Kent returned to the BPH for the fifth and final time in 2018, during his 30th year of incarceration. Again, the BPH presiding commissioner stated up front that Kent was a youth offender, this time going into even more detail about his youthfulness, stating Kent’s age at the time of the offense, and declaring that the board would give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles compared with adults, the hallmark features of youth, and Kent’s subsequent growth and maturity – in line the SB 260’s language. This was the first of Kent’s five hearings in which the parole commissioner detailed upfront what it actually meant to be a youth offender and how the BPH should weigh this in making an eligibility decision. His youth was discussed throughout the hearing, along with his progress in programming, parole plans, work history in prison, and his insight and remorse.

The commissioners found that Kent was no longer a threat to society, but the DA disagreed with this assessment based on the egregiousness of the homicide crime he committed at 17. Kent recalls that the BPH presiding commissioner went to bat for him, again emphasizing his youth and his progress. The transcripts reflect this interaction, with the commissioner calling the DA’s opinion “completely contrary” to the evidence. The BPH ultimately found Kent suitable for parole, unpacking in detail their analysis of the youth factors and how they applied to Kent, weighed along with his risk assessments, insight, and parole plans. The transcript stated:

Taken together, it is the evaluator’s opinion that, you did have the diminished capacity associated with youth and the crime was influenced by immaturity and recklessness associated with youth and that you have significantly matured over time. […]

Kent committed this crime at the age of 17 and, according to science, very possible his brain was not fully developed at that time.

We also took into consideration the vulnerability of youth which states that juveniles are more vulnerable, susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including family and peer pressure. Exposure to deviant peers leads to increased deviant behavior and is a consistent predictor of adolescent delinquency. Looking at your life around the time of the crime and even in the life crime, we see that influence. So based on these findings, we conclude that you do not pose an unreasonable risk of danger or threat to public safety. Accordingly, this panel finds you suitable for parole.

Here, it is evident that specific youth factors (brain development, vulnerability, and peer influence) were used as mitigating factors in the argument for his release.

In sum, Kent’s journey to parole suitability was ultimately quite lengthy, with the five total hearings changing considerably before and after SB 260. The hearings continued to evolve, considering youth as a mitigating factor the longer SB 260 was in effect. Kent’s suitability evolved as he continued to participate in prison rehabilitation programming, which affected the tone at the hearings. Nevertheless, the change in how “youth factors” are framed from one hearing to the next is notable.

Senate Bill 394: David

In 1993, David was sentenced to JLWOP for a homicide committed at age 17. David was offered a plea deal of 25 years to life, but he instead decided to fight the case, not fully grasping that a worse alternative was possible. He was tried and sentenced to JLWOP, entering the California prison system at age 18 without hope for freedom. David was angry at first, racking up some rule violations for various incidents, from drug use and fighting to staff assault. By his mid-20s, David had a self-described “aha moment” and began to change his behavior and engage in prison rehabilitation programming. In 2005, at age 31, he had his last violent rule violation, 13 years before becoming eligible to go before the BPH for a YOPH under Senate Bill 394. Although his violent infractions stopped in 2005, David did receive one more rule violation for a cell phone in 2017—one that came back to hurt him later.

Before SB 394, David began seeking release through the SB 9 petition process. In 2013, his attorney sent a mitigation specialist to speak with him, and they began preparing for an SB 9 petition. At this point, David felt hopeful but also experienced deep hesitancy about returning to the county jail to file the petition and appear before the judge—necessary components of the SB 9 process. In addition to concern about potential violence at the jail, David expressed fear that he would have to remain there for an extended period of time and that this would be both expensive (he would need to leave his job) and harmful to his mental health.

In 2017, while David was awaiting the trip to county jail for his recall and resentencing hearing, former Governor Brown signed SB 394 into law. David’s attorney requested to hold off on the hearing since David was automatically assigned a date to go before the BPH. David recalls that after SB 394 passed, the process happened so fast that he was unaware he had a parole hearing date. His mom found out online through the state’s online inmate locator tool, and he then found out through a family friend. There was little time for David to prepare for this hearing, and he was ultimately given a three-year denial.

During the hearing, the BPH commissioners acknowledged that David had just become eligible due to the change in law and asked David how the change made him feel, to which he responded:

I rejoiced, I was happy, because I wanted the opportunity to be able to come in here before the Commissioners to show you that I’ve changed. Even if I don’t get found suitable, even if I don’t get out, I made the change for me, because it was the right thing to do and I wanted that to be seen. I needed that to be seen, because I didn’t wanna be perceived as the monster for the rest of my life or the guy that took another man’s life and didn’t have any remorse behind it. I needed this to happen and having life without, wasn’t gonna happen.

The BPH commissioners also noted that David had sought out much of his rehabilitative work and programming before becoming parole-eligible, which they found to be an impressive indication that he was on the right track long before any chance at release. The DA present at the hearing argued against this, however, questioning whether David only engaged in rehabilitative programming to gain parole suitability rather than genuine interest. Interestingly, the BPH commissioners pushed back in David’s favor, acknowledging the circumstances under which he could complete his programming. The transcript stated:

I’m not gonna allow the question – the issue is –is that the Youth Offender Law was passed in 2017, he did much self-help training, significant self-help training in ’15, ’16. I mean I’m going back and I’m looking ’12, ’11, and knowing the institutions where he was located, those level fours, there’s actually very limited access to programming, so it’s significantly more than what I would normally see from a level 4.

While the commissioners commended David’s engagement in rehabilitation programming, they were concerned with the age at which David stopped receiving infractions for violence, which was age 31. The transcript stated:

You were 31. A little older than the causative factors of youth, usually the violence stops more like 26, but how is it that you’ve been able to avoid violence for 13 years for somebody who has—such a—a history of violence prior to that? […] [David’s] violence and antisocial behavior continued after entering prison, suggesting life crimes may not be attributed solely to the Hallmarks of Youth.

The DA then said that because of this pattern, David should be unable to claim youth offender status. He stated:

I don’t think he can say that he was a youthful offender and that he committed the crime during this period in that he has continued to engage in criminal thinking for 43 years and is due to him being a youthful offender. That is not the case…

David’s attorney attempted to clarify that it is not up to the DA to decide if someone is a youth offender. It is a designation determined by the law: “We don’t discount youthful offenders in any way, shape, or form. We look at it because the legislature tells us we have to, and the courts have told us we have to.” At that point, the hearing concluded, and the BPH ruled that David was not suitable for parole and that while he did indeed demonstrate the hallmark features of youth, the callousness of the crime and incomplete progress toward rehabilitation outweighed youth mitigation factors. David believed this decision was due to a more recent nonviolent infraction for being in possession of a cell phone, which was mentioned in the hearing twice, as well as the haste to which some of his documentation was assembled.

Between his first and second YOPH, the resentencing clinic advising David’s state attorney became his official representation. David recalls that they were positive, telling him he was close the first time and just needed a bit of help with documentation. During the second hearing, there was a more substantive and meaningful discussion of the youth factors and how they impacted David at the time of his crime, with the commissioners breaking down each youth factor and applying it to David’s case. While the mitigating factors of youth were mentioned in his first hearing, the parole transcript did not indicate a deep focus on them. Conversely, the commissioners in the second hearing stated:

The panel gave great weight to the following youth offender factors we found to be present. At the time of the crime parts of your brain were not fully mature resulting in a lack of impulse control, an inability to plan ahead and an inability to avoid risks. You demonstrated immature thinking and you were subjected to a negative and neglectful environment, and that environment appears to have substantially impacted your thinking. […] And at the time of the crime, you exhibited the hallmark features of youth resulting from your incomplete brain development. You had an underdeveloped understanding of your responsibility for your actions and decisions and you were more vulnerable and susceptible to those negative influences. And your actions and decisions demonstrated significant recklessness because you lacked the ability to understand the danger of your actions to yourself or others.

In this second hearing, the commissioners unanimously found David suitable for parole after 30 years in prison. It was clear from the parole transcripts that the law encouraged these youth factors to be taken directly into consideration, facilitating David’s release. That said, David’s main recollection of the second hearing was that he had “worked on the things they asked me to” in terms of demonstrating rehabilitation.


In this discussion, we first address the question of the emotional toll of the parole process and then summarize some of the factors that appeared to be considered in these parole decisions, including evidence of remorse/insight, proof of rehabilitation, and disciplinary infractions. Last, we address how the hearings progressively considered the role of “youth” as a mitigating factor. This progression of BPH consideration in relation to the evolving policy changes is depicted in Figure 1, and the results of our analysis are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3: Summary of Cases




Emotional Burden

Miguel’s defense lawyers had to convince him to represent him because he felt conflicted about getting a second chance; he worried about having hope; he didn’t want his lawyers to contact his loved ones because he didn’t want to inflict more pain on his family or ex-girlfriend.

It was a disheartening process for Kent, as he had to go through five parole hearings before he was finally granted parole; this frustration was particularly acute following his fourth hearing, as the board recognized the mitigating factor of youth but still rejected him.

David felt anxiety about returning to county jail, a mandatory component of the SB 9 process, due to the threat of violence and the loss of his job and programming while away; this burden was eliminated when he went up for parole under SB 394.



SB 9 requires applicants to write a remorse statement in the resentencing hearing. Miguel presented this to the judge.

No remorse statement was mandated by SB 260, but commissioners considered remorse/insight at the hearing.

No remorse statement was mandated by SB 394, but commissioners considered remorse/insight at the hearing.

Evidence of Rehabilitation/Disciplinary Infractions

His parole hearing highly commended his record and evidence of rehabilitation; Miguel had a perfect record (no infractions, write-ups, or anything of that nature) -- and believed this would make it hard for the board to reject him.

Kent only had four write-ups for rule violations in 30 years of incarceration. However, this was not the focus of his parole hearings; evidence of prison programming and rehabilitation was not widely considered.

David had several infractions in the early years of his incarceration; he was violence-free for 13 years as of his first YOPH hearing and was lauded for beginning his self-help work years before he was eligible for parole; nevertheless, his more recent cell phone violation was considered at both hearings.

Role of Youth Factors

Miguel was eligible for a YOPH after he was resentenced; the board deemed he had characteristics similar to those of other 260 candidates; they determined he could have the spotless record that he did because his youth meant that he was not beyond reform and thus enabled his change.

Kent’s youth was used against him in hearings before SB 260; his first SB 260 hearing gave a cursory nod to his youth; only his last two hearings meaningfully explored the impact of his youth in hindering his decision-making and rendering him susceptible to peer pressure.

While David’s youth was discussed in his first YOPH, his crime/ insufficient rehabilitative progress overshadowed the youth factor and his youth wasn’t thoroughly analyzed; his second and final hearing involved a much more comprehensive discussion of youth characteristics.

Our study aimed to examine the emotional components of these resentencing and parole processes. The entire process- from first learning about opportunities for freedom through the release itself- carries many emotional components and mixed, heavy emotions. As Rivera (2020) suggests, the emotional weight of seeking parole is compounded for those who are asked to return, as each successive denial can further undermine and invalidate their sense of self and their self-assessment of their growth and progress. These case studies serve to tangibly illustrate the wide range of emotions that these legislative shifts beget, which evolved as each progressive piece of legislation facilitated the release process more easily and addressed the concerns of the juvenile lifers as they anticipated the potential for parole. Miguel’s collaboration with his defense team allowed him to learn more about research regarding adolescent brain development, helping him reconcile with his feelings of guilt and culpability- ultimately finding himself worthy of freedom. Moreover, Kent’s hopelessness and frustration were eventually relieved as the BPH increased their attention to youth as a mitigating factor- yet still, his release took five hearings. Last, David’s anxiety concerning the safety and financial ramifications of being temporarily transferred to the county jail was remedied by SB 394’s streamlining of the resentencing process.

In this sense, these laws served not only to further California’s efforts to be in compliance with and extend the “meaningful opportunity for release” standard they also highlight how the policy itself shapes the emotional responses to and experiences with the parole process. Given a dearth of literature on the emotional toll of parole processes, these individualized case studies serve to meaningfully contextualize the impact of legislation on both the legal processes affected and the individuals these policies target.

Our second question asked, what is the role of standard parole factors, such as remorse/insight into the crime and evidence of rehabilitation (i.e., prison programming and disciplinary infractions) in these hearings? Across all three cases, we find that all of these factors featured prominently in both standard parole and specific youth offender parole hearings. In all hearings, the parole commissioners discussed if these men had displayed insight into their behaviors and if they had expressed remorse for the victims. The presence of remorse and insight was also raised in relation to the egregiousness of the homicide crimes (the details of each one we did not emphasize in the paper to protect confidentiality). All three men had, according to their own accounts, engaged in considerable work on reckoning with a homicide crime, including personal responsibility and victim impact. While only Miguel was required to submit a remorse statement under SB 9, the issues of remorse and insight featured prominently in the decisions reached in all of the hearings analyzed. While we cannot make generalizations from the three cases, it seems clear that being remorseful and possessing insight into participation in the homicide offense was required to be considered for parole.

Consideration of rehabilitative work appeared to be assessed by both engaging in prison programming as well as not having an extensive disciplinary record. For example, the parole commissioners praised David for seeking self-help work in prison years before SB 394 (2017) was passed into law. They lauded his rehabilitative efforts because they viewed them as voluntary, as he had no hope of release when he began his journey of self-improvement and discovery. Yet, simultaneously, participation in violence or having a disciplinary record in prison (until age 31) was used as evidence counter to rehabilitation. That said, the role of a clean prison record appeared to be pivotal to Miguel’s relatively smooth release with no opposition in his SB 260 hearing, but Kent’s also impressive record, with only four infractions throughout his entire incarceration, was considerably downplayed across his denials, reflecting some arbitrariness in the extent to which the BPH regards positive prison records as evidence of evidence of rehabilitation.

In Miguel’s resentencing case, the judge clearly considered evidence of Miguel’s rehabilitation, evaluating not just the facts of the case but his’ progress while incarcerated. While this is not unique to California (e.g., Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, etc. specify rehabilitation should be considered during resentencing), it reflects a unique consequence of JLWOP reform on criminal justice systems in the United States. Overall, the role of “rehabilitation,” as evidenced by participation in programming and record of infractions, appeared to be a key factor for Miguel’s release but was used capriciously in the other two cases. This finding stems from just these three cases but resonates with Bell’s (2019) larger study of CA SB 260 decisions.

Our last question asked if this progression of California laws meaningfully considers youthfulness as a mitigating factor. While these laws all encourage a discussion of the role of youthfulness, SB 260 explicitly stipulates that these juvenile lifers must have a special Youth Offender Parole Hearing in which these hallmark characteristics of youth are considered. However, according to prior research, this does not necessarily mean that such discussions will always be more than cursory or superficial- or that they will outweigh other standard parole considerations, such as disciplinary infractions (Caldwell, 2016). We found this to be the case in our analysis of Kent’s second and third parole hearings, in which the BPH addressed youthfulness but not as a mitigating factor when compared to the relative egregiousness of his crime and his prior criminal record. Over time, Kent’s youth at the time of the crime featured as a more prominent mitigating factor in the decision to grant his parole. David’s second hearing also specifically featured his youth as a mitigating factor. Miguel’s parole hearing, conducted soon after YOPH’s was created, acknowledged his youthfulness but seemed to place greater weight on his perfect prison record above all else.

Moreover, the shift in discussion noted between Kent’s third and fourth YOPH in a relatively brief turnaround could be attributed to several different factors, including the commissioners, the amount of programming he had completed, and the amount of time that had passed since SB 260 had been enacted. Prior literature has suggested that youth-specific mitigation factors are considered fairly randomly in parole hearings and decisions (Kokkalera & Singer, 2022). In these three cases, youth factors were much more strongly considered as mitigating features over time. As the YOPH process developed, the commissioners appeared to make a more deliberate attempt to bring these factors into a meaningful discussion and contextualize the circumstances of the crime in relation to youthfulness itself.


Our study is limited by the case study method, which is not generalizable. While this method is not intended to be transferable, it does offer in-depth insight into the granting of parole after a juvenile life sentence. We also understand that we could interview and follow three successful parole cases— even those that took multiple hearings to find the individual suitable for parole; yet we cannot account for factors, circumstances, or narratives that lead to sustained denials. The sheer density of the documentation also limits this research; even with just three cases, we had over 1000 pages of transcripts and parole documents to code. New technologies that can read and code parole transcripts with greater numbers of cases may be needed to understand better the factors that lead to a parole decision for those still serving JLWOP sentences. Future studies also ought to explore how California law differs from other states and how resentencing and parole policies in response to Miller and Montgomery may or may not be implemented in ways that reduce bias and facilitate safe release.


California has made important and groundbreaking strides in promoting justice for youth lifers through legislative reform. This study finds that the efficacy of such reforms may be dependent on the actors involved. The three cases show that reforms may evolve over time as the actors involved adapt how they interpret and implement policies and parole guidelines. Furthermore, the cases illustrate that even when statutes provide clear guidance for factors that should be considered in parole decision-making, parole policy can still be experienced as highly subjective. Of specific concern is that decisions can be made based on the amount of rehabilitative programming completed, which can vary based on the security level of an institution and the programs that are offered to lifers. These decisions can also be influenced by the commissioners present at the hearing and their belief in the sincerity of a lifer’s remorse and accountability; assessments about the seriousness of the offense and its implications for parole readiness; interpretations about the role that youthfulness plays in mitigating the individual’s role in the offense; and the presence or absence of the DA and/or victims at the hearing. Our case analyses suggest that these are highly variable factors, considered differently even from one hearing to the next, with major implications for an individual’s pathway to freedom.

As such, limiting the degree of discretion and providing more specific guidance in policy statutes may help to ensure that reform measures are effective and that parole decisions are made equitably. These parameters might be included in state legislative statutes targeting reform or parole boards’ regulatory policies. Effective strategies could entail defining what qualifies as successful rehabilitation (e.g., standards for security classifications, expectations concerning the recency of misconduct) or adding more specific language about how to weigh factors concerning youthfulness, particularly vis-a-vis factors associated with the offense. Specific tools could be developed or adopted to help ensure the systematic and equitable consideration of mitigating factors.

There is ample room for future research in this area. While California’s reforms have gone beyond national precedent in protecting the due process rights of youth lifers, this case study finds mixed evidence that these reforms meet the federal standard of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. However, this research is based only on three purposively selected cases. Future research needs to continue to understand the arc of the implementation of Miller and Montgomery and how these pathways to freedom are implemented and experienced. We must not forget that at the center of these decisions are people whose life course - and their chance for freedom- will be determined by these decision-making bodies. Continued research in this area regarding the policies, parole board decision-making, and parole requirements will help to ensure that a meaningful opportunity for release is truly accessible to youth lifers.


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We wish to thank our funders, the UCLA Faculty Senate, along with the community partners and participants who took part in this study.


Laura S. Abrams is a Professor of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Her scholarship has critically examined the experiences of youth in US carceral facilities through reentry and into the transition to adulthood. She is currently working on ending the practice of life sentences for youth. Dr. Abrams is a member of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and the recipient of the 2022 UCLA Chancellor’s Public Impact Research Award. She is the author of several award-winning books and anthologies.

Kaylyn Canlione is a graduate of the Social Welfare and Public Policy Department at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and currently works for Los Angeles County’s Department of Youth Development as a Research and Policy Manager. Her work focuses on policy and program development in the interest of implementing LA County’s shift towards a care-first model of youth justice. Previously, Kaylyn conducted research on the use of extreme youth sentencing and related policies in California.

Leah Ouellet is a Ph.D. student in Northwestern University’s Human Development and Social Policy program. Her work focuses on administering extreme sentences, carceral policy reform and implementation, and the intersection of sentencing policy and adolescence and emerging adulthood. Her current projects include tracking and analyzing juvenile life without parole reforms throughout the United States and studying how developmental processes like the transition to adulthood occur for young people in prison. In addition to pursuing her Ph.D., Leah has worked as a mitigation specialist for juvenile lifers in Michigan since 2017.

Audrey Melillo is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. She is pursuing a BA in Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and a minor in Computer Science at the College of Literatures, Sciences, and the Arts. Her main undergraduate involvements include her leadership role in The Michigan Pre-Law Society and her work with The Alba Project, which seeks to destigmatize conversations about mental health among the community of those recently released from prison. She is particularly passionate about juvenile justice reform and human rights advocacy, and she plans to attend law school and eventually pursue a career in civil rights law following her undergraduate graduation. 

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