In recent decades, a “get tough on crime” attitude has resulted in trying as adults even younger teenagers who commit serious crimes has almost commonplace. The Campaign for Youth Justice estimates that annually 200,000 persons under the age of 18 are tried as adults in the United States.
While a child tried in juvenile court and found to be delinquent will generally be eligible for release upon reaching age 18, one tried as an adult faces the same sentence as any other defendant. In the wake of two recent landmarks, U.S. Supreme Court decisions the debate over the legality of mandatory life and other long prison sentences for young criminals, as well as their relative costs and benefits, continue to produce new case law.
In Graham v. Florida, a 2010 United States Supreme Court decision, a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a juvenile’s non-homicide offense was found to violate the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2012, the high court in Miller v. Alabama reached the same conclusion in cases of homicide.
In addition to leaving unanswered the question of whether the decision should apply retroactively, however, the justices did not determine what lesser minimum term of incarceration without parole might be permissible for either homicides or lesser crimes.
Fifty Years is Too Long – But How Much Less is Okay?
The California Supreme Court recently took up this issue in two companion cases involving Leonel Contreras and William Rodriguez. The defendants were sentenced to, respectively, 50 years to life and 58 years to life following their trial and conviction on kidnapping and rape charges. Each was 16 at the time. It was noted in passing that the California statutory right of a juvenile to seek parole after 25 years – even in homicide cases – was not available to these defendants because of the law under which they were sentenced.
In prior cases, the California courts had established a rule that a juvenile’s sentence which is the “functional equivalent” of life without parole is also unconstitutional. As such, the state here contended that even a lengthy sentence is always permissible so long as the defendant has some realistic chance at parole, based on his or her average life expectancy.
The Court’s majority rejected that argument, finding instead that a sentence must be consistent with the substantive reasoning underlying Graham, Miller and prior decisions of the state Supreme Court, namely that it must allow a juvenile a realistic opportunity for release based on maturity and rehabilitation.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye endorsed the Attorney General’s actuarial approach and criticized the majority’s failure to articulate any standard by which to determine the age at which a defendant no longer has a reasonable chance at rehabilitation. According to the dissent, the defendants here both had such a chance, albeit it would occur at the end of the 50-year term when they would be in their late sixties and mid-seventies.