Sentencing a juvenile to 50-to-life for rape and kidnapping may be cruel and unusual punishment, according to a recent California Supreme Court decision.
Defendants Leonel Contreras and William Rodriguez were convicted in a joint trial of kidnapping and sexual crimes they committed as 16-year-olds. Rodriguez was sentenced to a term of 50 years to life, and Contreras was sentenced to a term of 58 years to life.
They were sentenced under California’s One Strike law for the rapes and therefore were not eligible for parole consideration under California’s Youth Offender Parole (YOP) process. The YOP process allows juveniles convicted of homicide or non-sex offenses a chance at parole after serving no more than 25 years.
The Supreme Court in its 4-3 ruling, found that Contreras and Rodriguez’s long sentences were unconstitutional because they were prevented the chance to earn their release from prison based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. The California court cited the U.S. Supreme Court in their reasoning. Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48.
In Graham, the high court held that juvenile non-homicide offenders must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
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The California Supreme Court interpreted Graham’s reasoning to extend beyond the notion that the defendants must just receive a parole hearing sometime during their incarceration before their expected lifetime.
“An opportunity to obtain release does not seem ‘meaningful’ or ‘realistic’ within the meaning of Graham if the chance of living long enough to meet that opportunity is roughly the same as a coin toss,” the California courts ruled in People v. Contreras. (Feb. 26, 2018, No. S224566) — Cal.5th —-, [2018 Cal. LEXIS 1008]
The court noted that Rodriguez would be eligible for parole when he turns 66 and Contreras when he turns 74. While a 2010 Centers for Disease Control report states that life expectancy for a 16-year-old boy living in the United State is 76.9 years, the Supreme Court found a lawful sentence must offer “hope of restoration” which goes beyond release from prison. It must also include a chance for redemption and reintegration back into society.
“Even assuming defendant’s parole eligibility dates are within their expected life spans, the chance for release would come near the end of their lives; even if released, they will have spent the vast majority of their adulthood in prison,” the Contreras court said. “Confinement with no possibility of release until age 66 or age 74 seems unlikely to allow for the reintegration that Graham contemplates.”
The court left open whether (1) the newly enacted legislation of the Elderly Parole Program (Assembly Bill No. 1448), which offers defendants an opportunity for parole at age 60 or older, after serving at least 25 years, or (2) Proposition 57, which gives incarcerated people a chance to earn increased credits for completing programs and good behavior, would satisfy the Eighth Amendment concerns set forth in Graham. (People V. Contreras, — Cal.5th —-, [2018 Cal. LEXIS at p 59].)
The court remanded the case back to the sentencing court with instructions to consider any mitigating circumstances of the defendants’ crimes and lives and the impact of any new legislation and regulations on appropriate sentencing. It further directed the sentencing court to impose a time by which defendants may seek parole, consistent with its opinion. (People V. Contreras, — Cal.5th —-, [2018 Cal. LEXIS at p 60].)