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How old is too old?

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In 2011, Leonel Contreras and William Rodriquez, both 16 years old, kidnapped and violently sexually assaulted two teenage girls.  They were both tried as adults and convicted of these crimes. Contreras was sentenced to 50-years to life, and Rodriguez was sentenced to 58-years to life.  On Monday, in a 4 to 3 ruling, the California Supreme Court held that these sentences were unconstitutional (People v. Contreras S224564).
Pursuant to Graham v. Florida, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses cannot be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).  They "must be given 'some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.'" The California Supreme Court majority held that because Contreras and Rodriguez's sentences would not permit them with an opportunity for parole until age 66 (Contreras) and 74 (Rodriguez), "the chance for release would come near the end of their lives" and is therefore the functional equivalent of LWOP.  The Court further stated that if released at those ages, "they will have spent the vast majority of adulthood in prison" and their sentences therefore violate the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment prohibition.  

In her dissent, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye stated: "The majority's erroneous interpretation and extension of [Graham] yield a result the Graham court did not intend -- the categorical condemnation of all sentences in which juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes will serve a term of 50 years or greater. At the same time, the majority fails to properly account for legislation and regulations that afford defendants William Rodriguez and Leonel Contreras an initial opportunity for parole no later than when they reach the age of 60. These measures take defendants' sentences outside of Graham's purview even under the majority's mistaken approach to that decision. Defendants' sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[.]" 

Both Contreras and Rodriguez have an opportunity for parole within their life expectancies.  According to the Chief Justice, "Graham requires only a 'meaningful' or 'realistic' opportunity for parole, not a certain one (which would be impossible to guarantee); and it does not require the very substantial postcustodial period that the majority demands."  She further states that, 

"the majority describes these ages [66 and 74] as falling "near the end" of a person's life, language that suggests that fulfillment at such a juncture is well-nigh impossible.  The millions of productively employed senior citizens would beg to differ . . . as would the millions more who have retired from the workforce, or perhaps never entered it, but represent valued contributors to their families and communities. And, I anticipate, many inmates who are freed from custody at these ages also would disagree with the assessment that they are "near the end" of their lives. True, prisoners who are released from prison after serving lengthy terms will need to adjust to their changed circumstances. But substantial fulfillment -- whether in the form of rapprochement or reunions with friends and family, community service, continuing education, employment, or otherwise -- does not necessarily arrive only after many years outside of custody, particularly for those who already have demonstrated maturity and the capacity to reform." 

The Chief Justice is correct.  Contreras and Rodriguez unleashed violent sex attacks on two unsuspecting teenage girls whose lives are forever changed. The trial court judge stated that had Rodriguez been an adult, he would have had "no problem" sentencing him to the maximum sentence of 200 years to life.  Had Contreras been an adult, his prospective statutory sentence would have been 620 years to life.  Even though they committed very "adult" crimes, their birth certificates mandate they be sentenced as juveniles.  The sentences they were given were not the functional equivalent of an LWOP.

2 Comments

Kent, do you share my view that this ruling turns entirely on federal constitutional law, and thus could properly be appealed to SCOTUS by California?

Do you think California will appeal this case to SCOTUS?

Yes, I read it as straight Eighth Amendment with Cal. Art. I ยง 17 mentioned only tangentially.

Cal DoJ certainly should file a certiorari petition, and I expect it would if the career folks in the office made the decision, but with a case of this magnitude political considerations may enter the picture. We will have to wait and see.

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