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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up how the economy is doing in second life, but first in this life. United States is now the only country in the world that imprisons juveniles for life without the possibility of parole. That's according to the University of San Francisco Law School, which this week confirmed that the only other country that still did that, Israel, has just reversed its policy. Here in the United States, there are still more than 2300 kid-lifers as they're called in 39 states. Some states have efforts underway to change that including California. From member station KQED, Judy Campbell reports.

Ms. BONNIE CASTILE (mother of juvenile serving life without parole): That's him there. That's when he was small…

Ms. JUDY CAMPBELL (KQED Radio Staff): Bonnie Castile is in her home in Oakland flipping through old pictures of her son, Plymouth.

Ms. CASTILE: Yeah, that's him. That's him here and that's him there.

(Soundbite of giggles)

Ms. CASTILE: He loves to dress. And his daddy…

CAMPBELL: In the most recent picture, he's dressed in prison blue. Castile has been in prison for 12 years so far, for a crime he committed when he was 17.

Ms. CASTILE: I often think of will I ever be able to just hold him in my arms again and to see my only son, besides seeing behind bars and I can't give up.

CAMPBELL: She says Castile and his friends held up a local store and when the clerk fought back, one of Castile's friends shot him dead. Castile was arrested with the others.

Ms. CASTILE: They gave him life without parole, as many years as they gave the guy that pulled the trigger and did the killing.

CAMPBELL: According to a recent Human Rights Watch study, that's fairly typical. In reviewing most of the juveniles serving life without parole in California, the study found 45 percent were not the trigger person in the murder. That's because they were sentenced under one of California's so called special circumstance laws that allow for life without for parole, for example, when someone is killed in the course of a felony, like a robbery. And in 1990, as part of a national movement toward harsher sentences for juvenile offenders, California voters passed an initiative that allowed life without parole sentences to apply to juveniles 16 and older.

Mr. SCOTT THORPE (California Attorney General's Office): What the voters have said to this initiative is we want to give the judges the option, so that they can choose the best sentence for the defendant and the crime.

CAMPBELL: That's Scott Thorpe with the state's District Attorney Association. His association in law enforcement groups are opposing a California Senate bill that would ban life in prison without parole for juveniles. Instead, they would get sentences of 25 to life with a chance at parole. At the heart of the argument is whether teenagers should be held responsible in the same way as adults.

Ms. ELIZABETH CAUFFMAN (Psychology Professor, University of California, Irvine): Well as any parent knows, kids are much more impulsive, don't think long term.

CAMPBELL: U.C. Irvine Psychology Professor Elizabeth Cauffman, specializes in adolescent development and delinquency and she says there's a reason we make stupid decisions when we're young. She says brains develop from back to front. That means the last area to fully form is the frontal lobe.

Ms. CAUFFMAN: The front of the brain is where you have the capacity to make your decisions, to regulate your impulses, to think long term.

CAMPBELL: Cauffman says brain under development isn't an excuse for heinous crimes, but it does mean that kids are more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.

Ms. CAUFFMAN: Kids peak at their criminal behavior at about 17, 18 years of age, and then they start to stop. It's just a decline in criminal behavior. So if we just left kids alone, most kids would stop committing offenses.

CAMPBELL: That's no consolation to Maggie Elvy(ph).

Ms. MAGGIE ELVY (wife to man murdered by juveniles): My husband's dead. He doesn't get a chance to be rehabilitated or brought back to life. Our life is ruined.

CAMPBELL: Elvy's husband was murdered 15 years ago after being robbed and repeatedly beaten over the head with a metal pipe. One of the assailants was 16 years old at the time. He's now serving life in prison without parole for the crime. And Elvy, who now works as a victim advocate, says that's exactly where he should be, because it was a planned brutal murder.

Ms. ELVY: Where have we gone wrong in society to say that it's okay to kill somebody and you should be able to get out - back out on the street, where is that fair to the victim?

CAMPBELL: Even if the law passes, it may actually make little difference in practice. That's because currently, California's parole board only approves release for a small fraction of inmates serving life sentences for murder.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell.

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