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August 16, 2012

California Supreme Court unanimously applies Graham to lengthy term-of-years sentence

The California Supreme Court issued a significant ruling today concerning application of the US Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling within the state. The lead opinion in People v. Caballero, No. S190647 (Cal. Aug. 18, 2012) (available here), starts and ends this way:

In Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. ___ [130 S.Ct. 2011] (Graham), the high court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from sentencing a juvenile convicted of nonhomicide offenses to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (Id. at p. ___ [130 S.Ct. at p. 2030].) 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....

Consistent with the high court's holding in Graham, supra, 560 U.S. ___ [130 S.Ct. 2011], we conclude that sentencing a juvenile offender for a nonhomicide 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.  Although proper authorities may later determine that youths should remain incarcerated for their natural lives, the state may not deprive them at sentencing of a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate their rehabilitation and fitness to reenter society in the future.  Under Graham's nonhomicide ruling, the sentencing court must consider all mitigating circumstances attendant in the juvenile's crime and life, including but not limited to his or her chronological age at the time of the crime, whether the juvenile offender was a direct perpetrator or an aider and abettor, and his or her physical and mental development, so that it can impose a time when the juvenile offender will be able to seek parole from the parole board.  The Board of Parole Hearings will then determine whether the juvenile offender must be released from prison “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” (Id. at p. ___ [130 S.Ct. at p. 2030].)  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.  Because every case will be different, we will not provide trial courts with a precise time frame for setting these future parole hearings in a nonhomicide case.  However, the sentence must not violate the defendant's Eighth Amendment rights and must provide him or her a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” under Graham's mandate.

August 16, 2012 at 07:16 PM | Permalink


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I'm sure this New Jersey girl wished she committed her brutal assault on her ex-boyfriend in California instead of her hometown: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2012/08/13/breaking-up-hard-bat-pipe-beatings-never-answer/

Fortunately for everyone else, she didn't...

Posted by: Norma Stits | Aug 17, 2012 4:04:28 AM

Does Graham provide a minimum expected natural life threshold in Eighth Amendment cases?
if my expected natural life is 70-75, I can't see why a state couldn't sentence mme to 65 years imprisonment.
What does rehabilitation have to do with life expectancy?
If I understand the ruling correctly, all it demands is a parole hearing before the prisoner is expected to die.

Posted by: Bob | Aug 17, 2012 7:04:35 AM

Bob --

"...if my expected natural life is 70-75, I can't see why a state couldn't sentence me to 65 years imprisonment."

It can. It's one thing to read Graham to forbid a so-called "term of years" sentence when the "term of years" is 110, which would make the offender older than anyone in history when released. That is obviously forbidden by Graham (which is why the opinion is unanimous). It's another to say that Graham forbids a term of years sentence of 65 years.

Graham was decided by one vote, and 65 is nothing like life or 110. I'll bet good money right now that the courts will find that a 65 year sentence for a juvenile is still legal. The Court will be unwilling to extend Graham to displace legislative judgment to the extent necessay to strike down a 65 year sentence.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 17, 2012 8:47:14 AM

Bob, Graham did not say that children have the right to "a parole hearing before [they are] expected to die." It said that children have the right to a "meaningful opportunity for release." It doesn't pass the laugh test to tell a 16 year-old that the chance to see the parole board at age 81 is meaningful. To a 16 year-old, 65 years is the same as a term labeled "life."

Also, look at the Harmelin case in which Scalia, writing for the majority, said there was only a "negligible" difference between life without parole and a sentence of 20-life for a 65 year-old. "Negligible" means of no practical significance. So the Court has drawn at least one bright line: Parole at Age 85 = LWOP.

Finally, the California Supreme Court got one thing right that many others missed: Graham held that children have the right to a "meaningful opportunity for release," and the Court applied that holding to a sentence labeled "life without parole." Graham did not merely ban the label "life without parole."

Conflict Watch: I represent a child with an 89-year sentence for a non-homicide crime committed at age 16.

Posted by: Stephen Hardwick | Aug 17, 2012 1:45:47 PM

"Conflict Watch: I represent a child with an 89-year sentence for a non-homicide crime committed at age 16."

No, you represent a teenager, not a child.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Aug 17, 2012 4:17:02 PM


Your argument is straight out of Alito's Miller dissent, where he complains that the majority uses the word "children" instead of his preference, "young men." But there's one thing that's clear about a dissent--it's not the law. And the Court is right to use the word "children" because brain science tells us that's what teenagers are.

Turn your argument around. If I represented a 22 year-old man who had consensual sex with a 16 year-old girl (illegal in at least some circumstances), and I tried to argue that my guy wasn't guilty because she was a "young woman," I'd be raked over the coals, and I'd hurt my case. When a child is the victim, prosecutors are happy to use the language of childhood though age 18, and sometimes 21. They shouldn't complain when it's turned around on them when the child is the defendant.

Posted by: Stephen Hardwick | Aug 18, 2012 7:57:44 PM

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