CA High Court Voids Heavy Sentences for Juveniles

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A divided California Supreme Court took another step to reduce lengthy prison sentences for juveniles tried as adults, ruling that terms of 50 years or more for violent sex crimes violate constitutional standards based on youths’ lack of maturity and their prospect of future rehabilitation, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The court did not specify a maximum sentence, but noted that a recent law would have made the 16-year-old defendants in the case eligible for parole hearings after 25 years if they had murdered their victims after raping them. One of the youths was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, and the other, found to be the leader, got 58 years to life. “A lawful sentence must offer hope of restoration … a chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, and a chance for reconciliation with society,” Justice Goodwin Liu said in the 4-3 ruling. He told a lower court judge to consider those factors, and the youths’ backgrounds, in resentencing them.

In dissent, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the sentences did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment because they were within the two youths’ normal life expectancies — one would be 66 when he becomes eligible for parole, the other 74, and the average 16-year-old can now expect to live until 79. Both defendants will have a “realistic … opportunity for parole within their lifetimes,” and that is all the Constitution requires, Cantil-Sakauye said. The youths in this case, Leonel C. and William R., each was convicted of two counts of violating the one-strike law for kidnapping and raping two girls, aged 15 and 16, outside a birthday party in San Diego.

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