CA Supreme Court Prohibits Lengthy Sentences for Teens Convicted of Non-Homicide Crimes

The California Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling last week in People v. Caballero, holding that a term of years sentence that is effectively a defacto life without parole sentence for a juvenile in a non-homicide case violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida. In Graham, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles convicted of non- homicide offenses could not be sentenced to life without parole under the Eighth Amendment. In its unanimous decision, the California Court wrote: “We must determine here whether a 110-year-to- life sentence imposed on a juvenile convicted of nonhomicide offenses contravenes Graham’s mandate against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. We conclude it does.”
Rodrigo Caballero was represented by California attorney David Durchfort. Caballero was 16 years old when he opened fire on three teenage boys who were members of a rival gang, injuring one of the teens. Caballero was found guilty on three counts of attempted homicide and was sentenced to a term of 110 years, making him eligible for parole consideration in 2112 – a century from now. “For the first time, a state Supreme Court ruled that very lengthy prison terms for juveniles who did not kill are unconstitutional if the sentence does not afford a meaningful opportunity of release,” said Durchfort. “Rodrigo Caballero’s family is grateful that he will now have that opportunity.”

Juvenile Law Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of several national organizations in support of Mr. Caballero’s position. We argued the case along with Mr. Durchfort and called on the court to recognize that a term of years sentence that precludes any meaningful opportunity for a youth to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation violates the high court’s decision in Graham.
With this decision, the California Supreme Court has taken a bold, critical step in extending the Graham decision to terms of years sentences which are the equivalent of life without parole in all but name only. We believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of juvenile offenders are currently serving similar harsh sentences for non-homicide crimes in several other states across the country. This decision should have implications well beyond California’s borders.
The California Supreme Court also made clear that the decision could be applied retroactively, holding that “defendants who were sentenced for crimes they committed as juveniles who seek to modify life without parole or equivalent defacto sentences already imposed may file petitions for a writ of habeas corpus in the trial court in order to allow the court to weigh the mitigating evidence in determining the extent of incarceration required before parole hearings.”
Richard Braucher, Pacific Defender Center Board Member, also filed an amicus brief on behalf of advocates in California who supported Mr. Caballero’s position. “We’re elated that the California Supreme Court sensibly and resolutely applied the mandate of Graham to de facto JLWOP sentences in California," he said. "While the remedy, permitting the filing of writ petitions, raises a number of procedural and strategic questions going forward, the criminal defense bar in California is buoyed by this important decision which brings great hope to our clients.”
The California Court held “that sentencing a juvenile offender for a non-homicide offense to a term of years with a parole eligibility date that falls outside the juvenile offender’s natural life expectancy constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment... [T]he state may not deprive them at sentencing of a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate their rehabilitation and fitness to reenter society in the future.”

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Juvenile Law Center, the oldest national, non-profit public interest law firm for children in the United States. Juvenile Law Center works to advance and protect the rights and well-being of children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Juvenile Law Center is also a resource for other legal advocacy groups across the nation.

Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, co-founded Juvenile Law Center in 1975. Throughout her legal career, Levick has been an advocate for children’s and women's rights and is a nationally recognized expert in juvenile law. She serves on the boards of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Southern Poverty Law Center, the advisory board of Rutgers-Camden Law School's Juvenile Justice Clinic, and the advisory board of Bureau of National Affairs Criminal Law Reporter. Levick is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University Law School. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at both the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Temple University Beasley School of law.

*Photo at top by Flickr user Steve Rhodes

Updated: August 20 2012