DLA Piper partner Steve Churchwell has given 309 inmates in California prisons something that once seemed lost forever: hope for the future. The inmates were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes that they committed before age 18 — some as young as 14.
Following a six-year lobbying effort led by Churchwell and Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate for Human Rights Watch, California passed a law that gives juvenile offenders the possibility of release before death if they have shown remorse and rehabilitation. The prospect of being locked up at age 15 and spending the next 65 or so years in prison is “cruel and unusual,” Churchwell said. “They had no hope whatsoever.”
A government affairs partner in DLA Piper’s Sacramento, Calif., office, Churchwell said he spent about 500 hours working pro bono on behalf of the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, one example of a trend toward specialists other than litigators volunteering their skills.
One of Churchwell’s key contributions was enlisting state Senator Leland Yee, who holds a doctorate in child psychology, to sponsor the bill. Churchwell also met with leaders of the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, with whom he had worked in the past; he hoped he could persuade them to take a neutral position on the legislation.
“Instead, they said they were going to support it. I tried not to appear shocked,” he said, calling their backing essential. Had public-safety unions united against the bill, “I don’t think we could have passed it.”
Two earlier versions of the law were narrowly defeated, but Churchwell didn’t give up, and in August 2012, S.B. 9 squeaked through the state Legislature. One Republican, Sam Aanestad, voted in favor, saying, “You either believe in redemption or you don’t.” Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill in September.
Under the new law, courts may review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after 15 years, potentially allowing some offenders to receive new minimum sentences of 25 years to life. The only exception: those who killed police officers, a necessary compromise that Churchwell said was difficult to swallow but was “the right call in the end.”
The law went into effect on January 1, and its impact was immediate, Churchwell said. Before, inmates facing life without parole were barred from participating in prison job-training programs. Now, because the 309 juvenile offenders have “a chance to get out, they can work in the library or learn woodworking…do training with everyone else.”