Should We Ever Sentence Children to Life Without the Possibility of Parole?

What’s wrong with possibilities?

Earlier this month, the California Court of Appeal held that a trial court could impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (or LWOP) on a 16-year-old boy even though the court could not rule out the possibility of rehabilitation.

He’s older now, but the boy was just sixteen years old when he committed the crime. And make no mistake: it was a heinous, horrible crime. If it weren’t then we likely wouldn’t be here. And there’s no way to sugarcoat it. According to the record, the defendant and a 16-year-old relative broke into a home to get money for drugs. They chose the home because they didn’t see a car around, and no one answered their knock on the front door. Inside, they encountered an elderly couple asleep in their beds, and they murdered them. They had brought a knife and baseball bat with them to the burglary, and they stabbed the man multiple times in the neck and beat him about the head and upper body. The woman was beaten severely all over her body, and the entire right side of her face was crushed. That’s all straight from the appellate opinion, so yes, it was bad. From the record, it’s unclear how much of the crime was committed by the boy versus the relative, but at trial, both boys were convicted by separate juries of first-degree murder with special circumstances for committing multiple murders during the commission of a burglary and robbery.

But then, the boy didn’t exactly have role models in life. One of his uncles was already serving a life sentence for murder. His paternal grandfather was an alcoholic, and his maternal grandfather died in prison following his conviction for molesting a 12-year-old relative. His maternal grandmother used speed and cocaine and beat the boy’s mother when she was young, and later, his mom got involved in gangs—as did her siblings—which is how she met his father, who was also a gang member. His mother got pregnant with him when she was 15, and his father described it as an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. His mother continued to drink heavily after he was born, and he grew up in a neighborhood racked with gunfire and gang activity.

His parents separated when he was a baby, and he rarely saw his father again. His mom hooked up with another gang member, and she had four more children by that guy. The new guy used drugs, drank heavily, and whipped the boy with his hand or a belt.

One day, the mom and her new guy got into it really bad, so the mom took the boy and moved out to her own, unstable mother’s house in Bakersfield. They stayed there with the grandma and her 16-year-old son, who was technically the boy’s uncle and seven months older than him.

Two weeks later, the mom reconciled with her ex and left, but the boy stayed behind in Bakersfield. He had tangled with the ex before, and he was not happy about the reconciliation.

Within days, he and the 16-year-old relative committed the crime. Before that, the boy had his share of problems, obviously, but he had no criminal record.

At sentencing, the boy’s lawyer acknowledged his horrible, horrific crime but urged the court not to give up on him entirely, arguing that he was going to be punished severely even without an LWOP sentence. Under California law, the boy was subject to either an LWOP sentence or, at the court’s discretion, a sentence of 25 years to life. See Pen. Code § 190.5(b).

The court appears to have wrestled with its decision, and at one point, it agreed that it “certainly [could] not exclude the possibility in this case, perhaps a significant one,” that the boy had “some significant possibility of rehabilitating.”

In the end, however, the court emphasized the violent nature and circumstances of the crime, and it sentenced the boy to life without the possibility of parole.

On appeal, his lawyer argued that the Eighth Amendment allows an LWOP sentence for a juvenile only if the facts show that he or she is irreparably corrupt, and that wasn’t the case in light of the trial court’s statements about rehabilitation.

The court of appeal, however, rejected that argument, holding that a trial court could impose an LWOP sentence despite the possibility of rehabilitation, so long as it properly exercised its discretion by weighing all relevant factors, including the defendant’s youth. The appellate court reasoned that a trial court’s discretion under section 190.5(b) had survived all the recent federal and state supreme-court cases on juvenile punishment, including the following:

  • The Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for those who are under 18 years old at the time of their crime. Roper v. Simmons (2005) 543 U.S. 551.
  • The Eighth Amendment allows LWOP sentences for minors only in cases of homicide. Graham v. Florida, (2010) 560 U.S. 48.
  • The Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory LWOP sentences for minors even in cases of homicide. Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).
  • Under section 190.5(b), there is no presumption in favor of an LWOP sentence over a 25-years-to-life sentence. People v. Gutierrez (2014) 58 Cal. 4th 1354.

Even so, it seems to me that life without the possibility of parole is always the inferior choice.

A ray of hope remains in California. Based on a new 2012 law, a minor may now petition for the 25-years-to-life sentence after serving 15 years of an LWOP sentence. See Pen. Code § 1170(d)(2). If his petition isn’t granted, he gets two more chances to petition for resentencing after 20 and 24 years. See id. But then that’s it. And he has no right to a lawyer to help prepare his petitions. Plus, there are many qualifiers and disqualifiers. So it’s a hard road, but it presents a chance.

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