In a ruling likely to reduce life-without-parole sentences for teenage California offenders, the state supreme court said judges are free to hand down 25-year-to-life terms for older juveniles convicted of serious crimes and must consider the defendants’ youth before sentencing, the Los Angeles Times reports. Before the ruling, state law had been interpreted as requiring judges to lean toward life without parole for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds convicted of murder with special circumstances.
The decision overturned decades of lower-court rulings and gave two men who were 17 at the time they killed the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by trial judges. The court said the sentences should be reviewed because they were handed down when state law was being misconstrued and before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that judges must consider a juvenile’s immaturity and capacity for change. Certain young offenders became subject to life without parole when voters passed Proposition 115, the 1990 “Crime Victims Justice Reform Act.” State appeals’ courts ruled that the law required judges to favor imposing life without parole over a sentence that allowed for release after 25 years. For two decades, those rulings stood. Yesterday’s decision said the lower courts had erred in the interpretation of the law.