110 Years for a Juvenile is Cruel and Unusual Punishment

behind_barsThe California Supreme Court recently held that imposing consecutive term-of-year sentences resulting in a 110 year prison sentence on a juvenile for a non-homicide offense is cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court held that sentencing a juvenile offender to life imprisonment without parole for a non-homicide crime was unconstitutional and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.   The Court reasoned that juveniles are different from adults – their brains are still maturing, they do not have fully developed behavioral control, and they are more capable of change than adults.  The Court found that juvenile “actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievably depraved character than are the actions of adults. “  The Court ordered that the states had to “afford the juvenile offender a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” and that a “life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.”

The High Court had limited its holding to juveniles actually sentenced to life without parole, and excluded from its analysis other cases where juveniles were sentenced to lengthy term-of-year sentences, for example a sentence of 80 to 100 years.

Since that decision, the California appellate courts have split on whether the Supreme Court’s ruling only prohibited sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole, or if it also prohibited sentencing juveniles to lengthy term-of-year sentences such as 80 or 100 years.  The California Supreme Court recently decided this issue and held that lengthy term of year sentences, such as 110 years-to-life, are cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court’s opinion involved a 16-year-old juvenile who opened fire on three other juveniles from a rival gang.  The 16-year-old shot one of the other juveniles in the back, they all survived.  The juvenile was charged with three counts of attempted murder.  He was convicted by a jury of all three counts and was found to have acted deliberately and with premeditation.  The trial court sentenced the boy to 15 years to life for the first attempted murder with a 25 year firearm enhancement, 15 years to life with a 20 year firearm enhancement for the second attempted murder, and 15 years to life with a 20 year firearm enhancement for the third attempted murder – all to run consecutively, resulting in 110 years to life.  The boy would not have been eligible for parole until 100 years had passed.

The California Supreme Court overruled the trial court, finding that this sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.  The California Supreme Court extended the United States Supreme Court’s analysis and found that extensive term of year sentences are the functional equivalent of a life without parole sentence and a violation of a juvenile’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.  The California Supreme Court held that a lengthy term of years sentence, even if it is one that is created by multiple separate sentences, denies a juvenile a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation within their natural, expected lifetime.

The California Supreme Court also stated that any defendant sentenced to life without parole, or an equivalent de facto sentence, for crimes committed while a juvenile can file a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the trial court to request review and reconsideration of their sentence.

This office handles all types of matters related to juvenile delinquency (criminal) proceedings in San Diego County. Contact us for advice.

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