Child Molestation And Life Sentences in California

Under California Penal Code Section 288.7, a court may sentence a sexual offender to life in prison for acts “with a child who is 10 years of age or younger.” Earlier this May, the California Supreme Court ruled that under Section 288.7 a life sentence may be imposed on a defendant convicted of sexual acts with a child who has not reached his or her 11th birthday.

The Case
The underlying facts in People v. Cornett involved allegations that the Defendant committed sexual acts against the victim, a child who was approximately 10 years and 11 months old at the time of the incidents. The Defendant was found guilty and given a life sentence for this and other convictions. The Defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that the child was not “10 years of age or younger” under the meaning of the statute because she had passed her 10th birthday. The California Court of Appeals agreed with the Defendant, holding that sexual acts against children past their 10th birthday were not included within Section 288.7. The California Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court’s interpretation of the phrase “with a child who is 10 years of age or younger” and reversed.

The Law
California Penal Code Section 288.7, which was passed as part of the Sex Offender Punishment, Control, and Containment Act of 2006, states that any person over the age of 18 found to have engaged in sexual intercourse or sodomy “with a child who is 10 years of age or younger” is guilty of a felony punishable by 25 years to life in prison. The California Supreme Court in People v. Cornett clarified the meaning of the term “with a child who is 10 years of age or younger.”

According to the Court, the phrase “with a child who is 10 years of age or younger” should be given its conventional meaning, describing a child who has passed his or her 10th birthday but has not yet reached his or her 11th birthday.

This less restrictive meaning than the one proposed by the Defendant, in the opinion of the Court, is more in step with the purpose and scope of what the California legislature intended when they wrote the Sex Offender Punishment, Control, and Containment Act of 2006 (Act). According to the Court, the principal purpose of the Act was to prevent future acts of victimization of the community by sex offenders. Further, a number of provisions in the Act focus particularly on protecting children.

Even though this ruling did not have a real effect on the Defendant’s sentence, since he was sentenced to 160 to life in prison, it will have a very real effect on offenders whose victims are between the ages of 10 and 11.


California laws relating to sentencing for sex crimes against minors can be complicated. Our experienced lawyers at the Johnson Criminal Law Group will discuss your case, options, and strategies. Please call us today.