California has always been ahead of the curve. Fresh on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences (JLWOP), the California Supreme Court announced that a 110-year sentence for a non-homicide crime was the equivalent of juvenile life without parole and thus unconstitutional in the case of People v. Caballero.Caballero, who was 16 at the time his crimes occurred, would have had to serve 110 years in prison before even having the possibility of going before a parole board.
The California Court’s opinion, released August 16th 2012, relies heavily on the reasoning put forth by the United States Supreme Court two years earlier in Graham v. Florida, where it flatly prohibited a JLWOP sentence for a non-homicide crime. The Caballero Court noted that developments in psychology show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds, that a life without parole sentence serves a very limited penological purpose for juveniles, and that children have the greatest possibility of rehabilitation. Of particular note to those in similar shoes as Rodrigo Caballero, the Court stated that those serving de facto sentences may file a writ of habeas corpus in trial court allowing mitigating evidence to be presented in order to be resentenced.
Relegated to a footnote, the Court opined, “We urge the Legislature to enact legislation establishing a parole eligibility mechanism that provides a defendant serving a de facto life sentence without possibility of parole …” Although the Court’s wishes would help those already serving de facto JLWOP sentences, legislative changes to California’s existing sentencing schemes would ensure that all juveniles receive fair sentences.
Often de facto JLWOP sentences are created through the combination of two mechanisms: mandatory sentencing and consecutive sentencing — both are legislative creations. Mandatory minimum sentences mean that once there has been a finding of guilt, the penalty has already been determined by a statute created by the legislature. Judges are deprived of the opportunity to tailor punishments, and cannot take mitigating information, such as a defendant’s background or role in the crime, into account at sentencing.
Consecutive sentences distinguish between more than one crime and assign punishment for each. These sentences are then served one after the other. While this sounds like a fair system, it can play out in unreasonable ways. A juvenile who approaches a group of three people and asks for their money is charged with three separate counts of robbery, and is given an individual sentence for each count, which they will serve one after another. In this scenario, our kid could get 10 years for each count, and would serve 30. Should he have a gang or weapon enhancement, this time would be added and would also have to be served consecutively — which could turn that 30 years into 60.
Consecutive sentences are hardly a U.S. invention. However what sets the United States apart is the lack of regulation surrounding these consecutive sentences. Over three-quarters of the countries in the world regulate consecutive sentences by allowing the sentences to be served at the same time, capping the sentences at a certain amount of years or merely enhancing the most serious offense.
These global practices recognize that uncapped consecutive sentences can lead to prison terms that are out of step with severity of the crime.
Likewise, mandatory minimum sentences are common practice worldwide — they establish a framework that ensures that sentences for similar crimes are the same across the jurisdiction. Although mandatory minimums are a part of the laws of most countries, the severity of the United States mandatory minimums stand out in stark contrast. The majority of countries allow for judges to exercise their discretion within the mandatory terms — so the fact that the perpetrator was a juvenile from a rough home can play a part in sentencing.
The combination of these legislative enactments has resulted in extremely long-term sentences — much like Rodrigo Caballero’s 110-year sentence. Caballero received mandatory sentences of 15, 25, 15, 20, 15 and 20 years, all to be served one after the other for crimes that occurred in a single incident. Rodrigo Caballero did not kill a single person.
The interplay of these legislative enactments has resulted in these far reaching consequences, some that the Legislature may not have actually intended. This very issue was mentioned by the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, where, while discussing juvenile life without parole, the Court noted “… it is impossible to say whether a legislature had endorsed a given penalty for children.”
In the wake of Caballero, California should continue to be progressive. The Legislature should not only enact specific parole eligibility mechanisms for juveniles serving de facto life without parole sentences but should also focus on reworking the existing statues that created these sentences in the first place.
Dana Marie Isaac is the project director and attorney at the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law’s Project to End Juvenile Life Without Parole. The Project, housed under USF’s Center for Law and Global Justice, files amicus briefs challenging life without parole sentences under international law — notably in the Supreme Court cases of Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Jackson.