California Supreme Court Prohibits Lengthy Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Non-Homicide Offenses

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court issued an important decision in People v. Caballero, holding that a lengthy prison sentence imposed upon a juvenile offender for a non-homicide offense effectively amounts to a sentence of life without parole. In so holding, the California Supreme Court relied upon the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida (2010) 130 S.Ct. 2011, wherein the Court ruled that a sentence of life without parole against a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In Caballero, sixteen-year-old Rodrigo Caballero fired shots at three members of a rival gang, injuring one. A jury found Caballero guilty of three counts of attempted homicide and the trial court sentenced Caballero to an aggregate term of 110 years in prison. Caballero would not be eligible for parole until 2112.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Ming W. Chin opined, “We must determine here whether a 110-year-to-life sentence imposed on a juvenile convicted of non-homicide offenses contravenes Graham’s mandate against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. We conclude it does.”

The Court continued, stating “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 Court also decided that its decision could be applied retroactively, declaring that “defendants who were sentenced for crimes they committed as juveniles who seek to modify life without parole or equivalent de facto 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.”

This is an important decision that offers one small step toward more fairness is the criminal sentencing process as it relates to juveniles. Society understands that those who commit crimes when they are young must be treated somewhat differently than adults. That includes ensuring that juveniles are not given effective-life sentences, without any realistic chance to re-enter society, following crimes committed in their youth.

Deputy Director and Chief Legal Counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, Marsha Levick hailed the Court’s decision as a victory for juvenile offenders, “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 Caballero decision is especially important given the current state of California’s criminal laws. Many criminal offenses in California carry severe penalties, including lengthy prison sentences. Such penalties can be especially devastating in juvenile cases where consecutive prison terms could mean the offender will spend much, if not, all of his or her life in prison. The potential for unjust sentences are also more likely when juveniles do not receive the best criminal defense available following their arrest and conviction.

Orange County criminal defense attorney Lauren K. Johnson has extensive experience protecting the rights of the accused, especially in the context of juvenile crimes. If you have questions regarding California’s criminal law or your rights, contact attorney Lauren K. Johnson today.