The California Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the state’s statute, which presumes a life-without-parole sentence will be imposed for certain crimes, must be interpreted differently to ensure judges have more discretion to choose alternative sentences for children. In People v. Gutierrez and People v. Moffett, the Court held that this sentencing practice for 16- and 17-year-olds violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama.

Applying the core of the Miller holding – that kids are constitutionally different than adults – the California Supreme Court directed sentencing courts to consider “how children are different,” and “how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”  The age of a youth and the “wealth of characteristics and circumstances” that distinguish adolescence must be carefully considered before sentencing, as they diminish the justification for this severe sentence.

The Court directed sentencers to consider all relevant evidence related to the unique traits of youth, and discussed five categories of factors for courts to consider.  Among them are: the age, immaturity, and the ability to calculate risk, as well as the significant psychological and neurological research on adolescent minds; the family and home environment; the circumstances of the offense and psychological pressure from others; and any evidence that exhibits the capacity for change and rehabilitation.

According to the decision, the question that must be addressed before imposing a sentence of life without parole is whether the youth “can be deemed, at the time of the sentencing, to be irreparably corrupt, beyond redemption, and thus unfit to reenter society, notwithstanding the ‘diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform’ the ordinarily distinguish juveniles from adults.”

Finally, the ruling gave teeth to the requirement that states provide a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” This consideration must be part of the original sentencing and not a later attempt to correct an illegal sentence.  Thus, California’s SB9, which allows for defendants serving JLWOP to petition courts resentencing after they have served at least 15 years, does not meet this requirement.  “The potential for relief…does not eliminate the serious constitutional doubts arising from a presumption in favor of life without parole…because the same questionable presumption would apply at re-sentencing.”

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