Penal Code section 3051, which mandates youthful-offender parole hearings for most defendants whose crimes were committed before age 25 and who receive de facto life sentences, violates equal protection by excluding youthful offenders sentenced under the One Strike law. In 2012, Edwards and Chioma, both 19 years old, were convicted on multiple counts of sexual assault and robbery committed against two victims. One Strike allegations were found true. Edwards was sentenced to 95 years to life; Chioma to 129 years to life. They challenged on equal protection grounds their exclusion from the provisions of section 3051, which mandates youthful-offender parole hearings for most who receive de facto life sentences for crimes committed before age 25. Held: Affirmed but remanded to allow appellants to develop the record with evidence of youth-related factors that will be relevant in a youthful-offender parole hearing. To succeed on an equal protection claim, appellants must show that the state has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner and that there is no rational basis for the difference. Under section 3051, a person who is convicted of committing an offense before age 25 becomes eligible for release on parole at a youthful-offender parole hearing held during his 15th, 20th or 25th year of incarceration, depending on the offense. However, subdivision (h) excludes offenders who were sentenced under the One Strike law. With respect to section 3051’s disparate treatment of youthful offenders who commit first degree murder versus those sentenced under the One Strike Law, there is no rational basis for the disparity. Both United States Supreme Court and California Supreme Court precedent have already determined that these defendants are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers. Nor does any empirical evidence suggest a rational basis for the dissimilar treatment. Thus, section 3051, subdivision (h)’s exclusion of One Strike offenders violates the principles of equal protection and is unconstitutional.
Defendants’ sentences of 129 years to life and 95 years to life do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Both appellants were 19 years old when they committed the sexual assault and robbery against the two victims. Edwards was sentenced to 95 years to life; Chioma to 129 years to life. Relying on cases holding that the law requires children to be treated differently from adults for sentencing purposes, defendants argued that their sentences were cruel and unusual in failing to account for their “extreme youth.” The court disagreed, concluding a defendant’s 18th birthday marks a brightline for purposes of the cruel and unusual punishment analysis. Therefore, those cases do not apply. The court must look at the federal and state tests regarding the proportionality of the sentence to the crime. Under the California Constitution, in determining whether the penalty imposed is grossly disproportionate to the defendant’s culpability, the court assesses (1) the nature of the offense and the offender, and the degree of danger posed; (2) a comparison with more serious offenses under California law; and (3) a comparison with other states for the same offense. Under federal law, the court need compare the sentence with other jurisdictions only if a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality. Here, the court found no gross disproportionality. The crimes were egregious and ruthless. The court found no basis for concluding that the sentences fell outside the range where a reviewing court must defer to legislative judgments on criminal sentencing.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/archive/A147103.PDF