People v. Contreras, 411 P.3d 445 (Cal. 2018) – Defendants, aged 16 at the time of the crimes, were convicted in a joint trial of kidnapping and sexual offenses and sentenced to 50 years to life and 58 years to life, respectively. Because they had been convicted under California’s One Strike law, defendants were not eligible for youth offender parole. See Cal. Penal Code § 3051(h). On appeal, defendants argued that these sentences violated the Eighth Amendment under Graham. The Court of Appeals agreed and remanded the matter for resentencing; the California Supreme Court granted review. On review, the Court agreed with the defendants that their sentences were unconstitutional. It rejected the Attorney General’s argument that “any term of imprisonment that provides a juvenile offender with an opportunity for parole within his or her expected natural lifetime is not the functional equivalent of LWOP” and that, because both defendants would be eligible for parole within their expected life expectancies (as calculated based on data for their particular age and gender cohorts), their sentences did not violate the Eighth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the actuarial approach presents myriad legal and empirical difficulties, including sentencing based on gender-specific or race-specific life expectancy data—“although persons of different races and genders are not similarly situated in terms of life expectancy, it seems doubtful that considering such differences in juvenile sentencing would pass constitutional muster.” Moreover, it noted the difficulty with accurately predicting life expectancy for incarcerated persons, especially those incarcerated since youth. Ultimately, it concluded: “we decline to adopt a constitutional rule that employs a concept of life expectancy whose meaning depends on the facts presented in each case. Determining the validity of lengthy term-of-years sentences under the Eighth Amendment through a case-by-case inquiry into competing evidence of the life expectancy most pertinent to a particular juvenile defendant would lead to problems of disparate sentencing. Moreover, even if there were a legally and empirically sound approach to estimating life expectancy, it must be noted that a life expectancy is an average. . . . An opportunity to obtain release does not seem ‘meaningful’ or ‘realistic’ within the meaning of Graham if the chance of living long enough to make use of that opportunity is roughly the same as a coin toss.”
Instead, the Court looked to Graham to determine the contours of a sentence providing a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Such a sentence would recognize “a juvenile nonhomicide offender’s capacity for change and limited moral culpability,” would offer “hope of restoration,” “a chance to demonstrate maturity and reform,” a “chance for fulfillment outside prison walls,” a “chance for reconciliation with society,” “the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,” and an “incentive to become a responsible individual.” Thus, a chance for release coming at the end of life would not pass constitutional muster; Graham requires more than a de minimis quantum of time outside of prison but rather an opportunity to participate as a productive member of society. Here, “[c]onfinement with no possibility of release until age 66 or age 74 seems unlikely to allow for the reintegration that Graham contemplates.” Moreover, “[a] young person who knows he or she has no chance to leave prison for 50 years has little incentive to become a responsible individual.” Finally, the Court explained that a 50-year sentence bears little relationship to legitimate penological goals under Graham, noting that such a sentence is especially harsh for juvenile offenders and that the judgment that a juvenile will be incorrigible for the next 50 years is just as “questionable” as the judgment that a juvenile will be incorrigible forever. These conclusions align with the decisions of other state supreme courts and with related state legislation nationwide. The Court declined to address in the first instance whether newly enacted elderly parole legislation affected the validity of the defendants’ sentences, “leav[ing] these novel issues for the lower courts to address in the first instance.” Thus, it agreed with the Court of Appeal that the defendants’ sentences violated the Eighth Amendment under Graham and remanded the matter for resentencing. It directed the sentencing court to consider “any mitigating circumstances of defendants’ crimes and lives, and the impact of any new legislation and regulations on appropriate sentencing” as well as “to impose a time by which defendants may seek parole, consistent with this opinion.” Affirmed.