California court charts new path on life without parole for juveniles

The California Supreme Court has ordered judges to be more cautious in sentencing juveniles to life without parole. States are struggling with the issue after a recent US Supreme Court ruling.

The California Supreme Court on Monday ordered judges in possible life-without-parole cases to take into account the differences between children and adults, endorsing the idea that young people have greater prospects for reform and rehabilitation.

The ruling is expected to have significant implications, with California prisons holding 12 percent of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole in the United States (about 300 of 2,500). More broadly, analysts say it could be a vehicle to begin addressing steep racial disparities, with black youths sentenced to life without parole 10 times more often than white youths.

In addition, the ruling could set a precedent for other states to follow. The landmark 2012 US Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. States have struggled to come up with new guidelines.

“Since [the Miller decision], states have been scrambling to determine what they are going to do in terms of sentences for juveniles,” says Judith Scully, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla. “The more states that begin to move a step beyond to provide greater protection of juveniles, the more likely it is we are going to be looking at a complete landscape change in this regard – that we will begin to see children as we once did, as redeemable, rather than clamoring to lock them up and throw away the key.”

The decision is a step closer to where the rest of the world stands on the issue. Only the US, Somalia, and South Sudan have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty. The treaty bans sentences of life without parole for acts committed before age 18, including homicide.

 In California, judges must now take into account three factors in juvenile cases that include the possibility of life without parole, says Wendy Kaplan, a professor at Boston University School of Law:

  1. The immaturity of children and their underdeveloped sense of responsibility.
  2. The vulnerability of youth.
  3. The recognition that a youth’s character is not yet as well formed as an adult’s.

“The rulings are important,” she says. “They reiterate the recognition that kids are different from adults, and those differences must be factored into decisions about their sentencing. [They] recognize that juveniles, even those convicted of the most serious murders, are not necessarily beyond rehabilitation. The fact that they are young gives them the possibility of redemption, which a sentence of [life without parole] prohibits.”

The implications of the court’s decision go beyond the judicial realm, adds Elizabeth Dowdell, a professor at the Villanova College of Nursing in Pennsylvania.

“With this ruling the court is acknowledging that children are different from adults, something that is quite clear when thinking of a 5-year-old, but more of a challenge when thinking about a 15-year-old,” she says. “Developmentally, children and adolescents are very different from adults specific to their brain development, behavior, social-context interactions, as well as physical and emotional maturation.”

The ruling will put more emphasis on judges, and that could bring more inconsistency into sentencing, some say.

“This will lead to sentencing results that vary by judge,” says Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general of the criminal appeals division in New Mexico. “That, of course, would be desirable if you could assume judges, by virtue of their position, are automatically endowed with a particular gift for discerning which kids are capable if rehabilitation and which are not. Unfortunately, I think you'd have to be extraordinarily naive to make that assumption.”

The result will be that some victims and their families will feel that justice is variable and – at times – unserved.

“One unavoidable result is that some survivors will have to face the realization that their loved one's violent death is deemed less reprehensible than the murders of other people,” says Mr. Jacobsen. “The real moral drama isn't confined to the courtroom actors, much as lawyers and judges prefer that tidy artificiality.”

In practice, Jacobsen predicts the new sentencing mandate “will make little practical difference to most young killers, who will still be put away for a very long time. But a lucky few will get out early, not because they're such good candidates for rehabilitation, but because they drew a judge with certain pre-set views on the matter. The ultimate effect, in other words, adds a little more randomness to the process.”

The ruling will affect more than just the sentencing phase of a trial, others add.

“This is huge because it will not only affect the actual sentences of these juvenile offenders, but it will also affect plea bargaining,” says Laurie Levenson a professor at Loyola Law School. “We have been cramming our prisons full of kids who could never hope to see the light of day. This will change that.”

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