People v. Contreras: 50 Years or Greater is Cruel and Unusual as to Juveniles.
People v. Contreras - California Supreme Court
On Monday the State Supreme Court issued a 93-page opinion, including a 38-page dissent by the Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, and a 13-page dissent by Justice Kreigler. The 40-page majority opinion, written by Justice Liu, held that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not allow juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes to be sentenced to a lengthy term of years, which would only permit them to be released on parole shortly before their expected death date.
Defendants Contreras and Rodriquez raped and kidnapped two 16-year old girls in 2011, at a time when both Contreras and Rodriquez were also 16 years old (i.e., "juveniles.") There is nothing nice about their horrendous crimes, but the focus here is not about how the rapes occurred – you can read the decision for that. Rodriguez was sentenced to a term of 50 years to life, and Contreras was sentenced to a term of 58 years to life. Consequently, Rodriguez will be 66 years old when first eligible for parole, and Contreras will be 74 years old when first eligible for parole.
Hispanic males have a life expectancy to the age of 78 years. This means if Defendant Contreras were lucky enough to survive, he would only expected to life another 4 years of life outside prison walls. Defendant Rodriguez would only have another 12 years of life outside prison.
Juveniles Are Different
Many of you reading this are thinking, "serves him right." What you are forgetting is the defendants were boys when they committed these crimes, not men. (i.e., "juveniles.") Suffice it to say, a child's mind works different from an adult's mind. They are easily persuaded and ideas are easily impressed upon them. They lack life experience to draw upon and do not appreciate long-term consequences as adults do.
Over the course of the last two decades, led by the United States Supreme Court, jurisprudence has accepted the scientific differences between children and adults, and have incorporated those differences into criminal sentencing law. It is not a matter of opinion, kids are different from adults, and unless they take a life, the courts cannot treat them just like adults. (Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 [no juvenile who commits a nonhomicide offense may be sentenced to life without possibility of parole, also known as "LWOP."]) “Children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” (Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, at p. 471.)
110 years to life = LWOP
Duty bound to follow their lead, California's High Court held in 2012 that a juvenile defendant’s sentence of 110 years to life for three counts of attempted murder was the functional equivalent of LWOP and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment, under Graham. (People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262, 268.) Graham and Caballero together hold that the Eighth Amendment does not allow juveniles who commit nonhomicide crimes to be sentenced to LWOP or to a term of years necessarily in excess of natural life expectancy.
Neither Graham nor Caballero considered whether a lengthy sentence short of LWOP or its equivalent would likewise violate the Eighth Amendment in this context. This is where this week's landmark decision comes in. According to Chief Justice's dissent, the majority's holding was a "categorical condemnation of all sentences in which juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes will serve a term of 50 years or greater." The Chief Justice's dissent was strong and stinging of the majority, referring to the "majority’s mistaken approach" as "erroneous" and "unconvincing[ly]." The majority responded to the Chief Justice's dissent, declaring its underpinnings "non sequitur" - - the strongest language we've ever seen used to refer to a colleague's dissent, at least by the California Supreme Court, and especially when applied to the Chief Justice.
The majority had a big problem with the "average life expectancy" being used, as urged by the Attorney General, as "practically and conceptually problematic." The average life expectancy does not take into account race or gender, both providing for significant gaps of age. For example, women are expected to live 5 years longer than men. Further, an "average" means that about half reaches the expectancy - - necessarily meaning the other half does not. Stated different, Defendant Contreras had about a 50% chance he would live to see the age he is eligible for parole.
"Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle, Old Age a regret."
I guarantee every single person reading this would like to forget something they did as a juvenile. In fact, our brains allow for this demarcation quite easily because most of us think we are not today who we were as teenagers. The capacity for change is what the juvenile offender has, but the adult may not. (see Graham, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 74 ["This judgment is not appropriate in light of a juvenile nonhomicide offender’s capacity for change and limited moral culpability.”])
In the end, Monday's majority holding splashed ripples into California's sentencing jurisprudence, but as Justice Kriegler's dissent points out, it "provides not a whiff of direction on how the lower court is expected to cure the purported error." Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye also pointed out that the majority opinion "provides sentencing courts with virtually no guidance for determining whether a lengthy prison sentence of less than 50 years will be held lawful."
The majority acknowledges this, but cites a “cardinal principle of judicial restraint — if it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more.” (citing PDK Laboratories Inc. v. U.S. Drug Enforcement Admin. (D.C. Cir. 2004) 362 F.3d 786, 799 (conc. opn. of Roberts.) Indeed, the majority left a gaping hole in its opinion. In this regard, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye appears to have captured the rule we can all take from the case: "all sentences in which juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes will serve a term of 50 years or greater" no longer comport with the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
If you or your family member are in prison for decades for a crime committed as a juvenile, call The Law Office of Patrick Santos for a free consultation today.