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Friday, August 17, 2012

State Supreme Court, Legislature Want to Give Juveniles Serving Life Sentences a Shot at Parole

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Prison reform is gaining momentum in California.
  • Prison reform is gaining momentum in California.

On June 6, 2007, Rodrigo Caballero, a 16-year-old member of the Vario Lancas gang in Los Angeles, jumped out of a green Toyota and opened fire on three Val Verde gang rivals walking down the street. He missed two of his targets, but the third caught a non-fatal gunshot wound near the shoulder blade.

The jury convicted Caballero, a diagnosed schizophrenic, on three counts of attempted murder, as well as enhancements for intentionally discharging a firearm for the benefit of a gang. The sentences racked up. He got 15 to life for each attempted murder; 25 to life for the firearm and gang enhancement on the first attempted murder count; and 25 to life for the gang enhancement on both attempted murder counts.

It would be 110 years before Caballero would be eligible for parole.

Yesterday, though, the California Supreme Court declared such sentences unconstitutional, ordering that juveniles guilty of non-homicide crimes get an opportunity for parole in their lifetime.

The ruling came the same day the state Assembly passed a bill, first proposed by state Senator Leland Yee, that would allow juveniles serving life without parole to request a court to bump the sentence down to 25-to-life.

Both events appear part of a gradual transformation of the California prison system, which already look much different than it did 10, even five, years ago.

Since October 2011 -- two years after the U.S. Supreme Court found California prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded -- the state inmate population has dropped by more than 26,000, making the system now only 60 percent overcapacity. While that pace might not be fast enough for the state to hit its goal -- 37.5 percent overcapacity by June 2013 -- at least we now have fewer prisoners than Texas, to which we have passed the highest prison population crown. Those numbers don't, however, account for the fact that the state simply shifted much of the overcrowding problem to county jails.

If the courts and legislature are chopping away at the state's prison population with a machete, Gov. Jerry Bown is slicing it down with a scalpel. The Thursday state Supreme Court ruling and Assembly bill wouldn't mean much pragmatically if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gov. Gray Davis were in office. The parole board recommends for release roughly 3 percent of those serving life sentences. The Governator reversed the board's decision 75 percent of the time. The Man Whom Enron Destroyed denied release 99 percent of the time.

Brown, though, has confirmed the parole board's decision more than 70 percent of the time --  a rate similar to that of Gov. Pete Wilson.

Yee's bill would only apply to inmates who have served at least 15 years and shown remorse and an effort to rehabilitate. The Assembly tacked on language to exclude criminals convicted of torture or killing a law enforcement official.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court did not set a time frame for when juveniles must get a chance at parole, leaving that judgement to the trial courts.

Two months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violated the Eight Amendment. Citing that case, the state Supreme Court concluded that "sentencing a juvenile offender for a non-homicide offense to a term of years with a parole eligibility date that falls outside the juvenile offender's natural life expectancy constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."

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Albert Samaha


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