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Name: People v. Contreras
Case #: S224564
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 02/26/2018

A sentence of 50 years to life for One Strike juvenile nonhomicide offender is the functional equivalent of LWOP and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under Graham v. Florida. When they were 16 years old, defendants kidnapped and raped two teenage girls. They were convicted of numerous offenses and ultimately sentenced to 50 and 58 years to life, respectively, under the One Strike law. The appellate court affirmed the judgment but reversed the sentences, determining that the sentences violated Graham because defendants did not have a realistic chance for release on parole. The California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Affirmed. The Eighth Amendment does not allow juvenile nonhomicide offenders to be sentenced to LWOP or to a term of years well in excess of their natural life expectancy. (Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48; People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262.) Under Graham, a lawful sentence must provide a juvenile nonhomicide offender with some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Graham’s emphasis on the opportunity “to rejoin society” suggests the high court envisioned more than the mere act of release within the defendant’s lifetime or a de minimis time outside of prison. Here, even assuming defendants’ 50 years to life sentences provide for parole eligibility within their expected lifespans, the chance for release would come near the end of their lives, leaving insufficient time for reintegration into society or incentive to become responsible individuals. Because the sentences in this case reflect a judgment that defendants are “irretrievably incorrigible,” and fail to provide a meaningful opportunity for release, they are the functional equivalent of LWOP and are unconstitutional. The court declined to base the outer boundary of a lawful sentence for a juvenile nonhomicide offender on life expectancy tables. [Editor’s Note: People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261 did not resolve the issue in this case because juveniles convicted under the One Strike law are not eligible for a youth offender parole hearing. (See Pen. Code, § 3051.)]

Remand for resentencing is required. The court remanded the case with directions for the trial court to consider any mitigating circumstances of defendants’ crimes and lives and the impact of any new legislation and regulations on appropriate sentencing, and to impose a time by which the defendants may seek parole, consistent with the court’s opinion. Although the court declined to resolve whether recent legislation and regulations, including the elderly parole program and the availability of good conduct credits under Proposition 57 affect the validity of the defendants’ sentences, it noted that information regarding the applicability of the programs may be developed on remand. [Editor’s Note: Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Kriegler filed dissents, in which J. Corrigan joined. In their view, the defendants’ sentences satisfied Graham because defendants would be eligible for parole within their natural lifespans. In addition, they believed the court should have considered how the elderly parole program and availability of good conduct credits under Proposition 57 affect the constitutionality of defendants’ sentences.]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: