By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law on Sunday a measure that grants juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without parole the chance to petition for their release after serving 25 years.
Roughly 300 inmates in California's prison system have been sentenced to a lifetime behind bars for offenses committed as teenagers, according to the bill's sponsor, state Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco.
Those inmates will now be eligible for parole after serving at least 25 years in prison.
The courts can review their cases after 15 years in prison and lower their sentence to 25 years to life if the juvenile offenders demonstrate remorse and work towards rehabilitation.
"The governor's signature ... is emotional for both the supporters and the opposition, but I am proud that today California said we believe all kids, even those we had given up on in the past, are deserving of a second chance," Yee said in a statement.
Supporters of the bill, including dozens of civil rights organizations, said the United States is the only country in the world where people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime serve sentences of life without parole.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that juvenile murderers cannot be given mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole, saying mitigating factors - such as the circumstances surrounding the crime and family background - must be weighed before imposing a sentence.
"There's no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive," Elizabeth Calvin, children's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The California District Attorney's Association opposed the bill, saying it applies almost exclusively to 16 or 17-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances, and that life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate sentence for them.
Forty-five percent of California's juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim, according to Human Rights Watch.
Many of the youths were acting as lookouts or were caught up in a robbery gone wrong, the group said, leading to a conviction of felony murder or aiding in and abetting a murder.
Brown also signed into law a bill that will slightly increase the number of inmates eligible for compassionate release and medical parole from county jails.
The laws will take effect on January 1.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; editing by Christopher Wilson)