Recent Court Cases on Extreme Sentences for Youth
Pending: Alatriste on H.C. & Bonilla on H.C.
The California Supreme Court will hear two cases in late 2014 or early 2015 deciding how sentencing courts must act when faced with sentencing to a very long adult sentence a person who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.
Alatriste includes the following issues: (1) Did Senate Bill 260, which includes provisions for a parole suitability hearing after a maximum of 25 years for most juvenile offenders serving life sentences, render moot any claim that such a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment to the federal Constitution and that the petitioner is entitled to a new sentencing hearing applying the mitigating factors for such juvenile offenders set forth in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. ___ [132 S.Ct. 2455]? If not: (2) Does Miller apply retroactively on habeas corpus to a prisoner who was a juvenile at the time of the commitment offense and who is presently serving a sentence that is the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole? (3) Is a total term of imprisonment of 77 years to life (Alatriste) or 50 years to life (Bonilla) for murder committed by a 16-year-old offender the functional equivalent of life without possibility of parole by denying the offender a meaningful opportunity for release on parole? (4) If so, does the sentence violate the Eighth Amendment absent consideration of the mitigating factors for juvenile offenders set forth in Miller?” Alatriste on H.C. and Bonilla on H.C.
People v. Gutierrez & People v. Moffett
In 2014, the California Supreme Court held that the State statute permitting life without parole sentences for 16 & 17 year olds must be construed as discretionary, and trial courts must consider the youthfulness of juveniles.
Defendants in these cases were both seventeen-year-olds who were convicted of special circumstance murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole under Cal. Penal Code 190.5(b). After Defendants were sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama. On review, the California Supreme Court held that section 190.5(b), properly construed, confers discretion on a trial court to sentence a 16- or 17-year-old juvenile convicted of special circumstance murder to life without parole or to 25 years to life, with no presumption in favor of life without parole. The Court further held that Miller requires a trial court, in exercising its sentencing discretion, to consider the ―distinctive attributes of youth and how those attributes ―diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders before imposing life without parole on a juvenile offender. (Miller, supra, 567 U.S. at p. __ [132 S.Ct. at p. 2465].) Because the sentencing regime created by section 190.5(b) authorizes and indeed requires consideration of the distinctive attributes of youth highlighted in Miller, we find no constitutional infirmity with section 190.5(b) once it is understood not to impose a presumption in favor of life without parole. People v. Gutierrez and People v. Moffett
People v. Caballero
On August 16, 2012, the California Supreme Court held that a sentence of 110 years to life was the same as life without parole. As a result, to sentence a juvenile to that sentence for a nonhomicide offense is unconstitutional under the US Supreme Court case, Graham v. Florida.
Rodrigo Caballero was 16 at the time of three attempted murders. He was convicted and his original sentence would have meant that he would have not been eligible to go before the parole board for over 100 years. People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262.
Miller v. Alabama
On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” The Court did not outlaw all life without parole sentences for juveniles, but it held that such sentences cannot be automatic or mandatory. It is still possible for a judge to decide that the facts of the case are so extreme, and the juvenile is so without potential for rehabilitation, that life without parole is an appropriate sentence. But the Court said it expects the sentence will be “uncommon,” and a court or jury must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”
Although it is still possible for a court to sentence a juvenile to life without parole after Miller, what Miller requires is that judges consider how juveniles are different from adults. Before sentencing a youth to life without parole, the court must give a lot of weight to the “the hallmark features” of youth, the family and home environment, the circumstances of the homicide offense, and how the defendant’s youthfulness affected the criminal proceedings.
The Supreme Court combined two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. The legal citation for these cases is Miller v. Alabama (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2455.
Briefs in Support of the Miller case
Many organizations and individuals submitted “friend of the court” (amicus) briefs to the Supreme Court in support of the youth who are sentenced to LWOP. Law enforcement, victim family members, religious groups, scientists, educators, disability rights activists, and groups like the the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Human Rights Watch, Mental Health America, National Association of Social Workers, and many others all signed on to briefs arguing that the court should find in favor of the young people in these cases. You can read these briefs here.
Graham v. Florida
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not permit the imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for youth under the age of 18 in cases involving a non-homicide crime. Terrance Graham, the petitioner in the case, was 17 years old when he pleaded guilty to armed burglary with assault or battery and attempted armed-robbery. When his trial court judge later found that Graham violated his probation by committing a home invasion robbery and other related offenses, it sentenced him to life without parole.
In California, there were approximately four people sentenced to juvenile life without parole for nonhomicide cases. They have been resentenced to parole-eligible sentences. The total number of juvenile life without parole cases in California is approximately 335 as of March, 2013. Read the full opinion: Graham v. Florida
Briefs in Support of the Graham case
Many organizations and individuals submitted “friend of the court” (amicus) briefs to the Supreme Court in support of youth who are sentenced to LWOP. You can read these briefs here.