Briefing Report: Life with the Possibility of Parole

Posted: August 15, 2012 in California Politics
Tags: , , , ,

From the California State Senate Republican Caucus:

“We have no basis for deciding that progress toward greater decency can move only in the direction of easing sanctions on the guilty.”
~ Chief Justice John Roberts


In the early morning of October 21, 2002, a 16-year old, continuation school student, quietly walked through his Santa Paula, California neighborhood wearing a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a black, aluminum baseball bat with gold lettering. While this may not seem out of place in many suburban neighborhoods throughout California, Adam Sarabia was not simply out for a morning walk or headed to an early team practice. For reasons that we may never understand, he instead went to the home of John Ramirez and Joann Wotkyn, a happy couple in their 50’s who worked at a local data storage company. Finding an unlocked garage door he entered the home, moved up the stairs to the bedroom and brutally beat and stabbed the sleeping couple to death. When he was finished he went downstairs, took the couple’s car keys and cell phone and drove off, joy riding with his friends for a few hours.

At the time of his conviction, the judge in Adam Sarabia’s case was quoted as saying that the “level of violence was just mind-boggling.”[1] Unfortunately, horrific details of this type are not unique in many of the juvenile murder cases where the defendant, like Sarabia, is ultimately sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in California. However, the special interest groups that oppose this particular punishment for juveniles would have you believe otherwise, citing a mix of private research, anecdotes and questionable statistics.

Over the past seven years those same groups have waged a legislative, legal and public opinion battle to end the use of JLWOP sentences, deeming them to be violations of basic human rights and the United States Constitution. Their efforts eventually allowed them to bring two combined cases involving 14-year old juvenile murderers subjected to mandatory LWOP sentences (Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs) to the United States Supreme Court, which issued an opinion on the subject in June.

Miller v. Alabama[2]

In a five-four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ­held that the “Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” This decision builds upon the court’s finding in two prior cases: Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S.___(2010.) In the former, the court held that imposing the death penalty on a juvenile for non-homicide crimes or imposing it on a mentally retarded defendant violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In the latter the court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a minor who committed a non-homicide offense.

The logic in Miller relied on two “strands of precedent” taken from these cases which the court believes reflects their concern with proportionate punishment for juveniles. First, in Roper the court found that juveniles are less culpable because their age itself diminishes the justifications for imposing the most severe criminal penalties such as the death penalty. Then, in Graham, the court determined that JLWOP shares many attributes with the death penalty and therefore requires the same type of individualized consideration. Combined, these two precedents led the court to conclude that a mandatory LWOP sentence violates the Eighth Amendment because it eliminates the consideration of key factors such as age, maturity, family, home environment, extent of participation, and peer pressure and therefore increases the risk of disproportionate punishment. The court stopped short of completely banning LWOP for juveniles, remanding only those cases that were sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme (i.e. one which has no other options) instead stating that they believe appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon in light of their decision.

What does this decision mean for California?

While California has approximately 295 offenders in custody who were under the age of 18 at the time of their LWOP sentence,[3], the recent decision will have no effect on them. California, unlike many other states, does not have a “mandatory” sentencing scheme. Current law[4] not only provides a judge with discretion to choose between LWOP or the option of parole after 25 years – it limits LWOP to offenders who were 16-years of age, or older, at the time of their crime and requires a conviction for murder with one of 22 special circumstances. The Supreme Court even noted in its opinion that California, in particular, is one of 15 jurisdictions that “impose life without parole on children relatively rarely” which would appear to comport with their desired outcome.

Moving Forward

While some advocates may claim that the court’s opinion was another step toward ending life without parole for juveniles, it was actually a very narrow ruling that did not establish any new standards or directly affect California law. Despite that fact, shortly after the opinion was released, Senator Leland Yee (D – San Francisco) called on the State Assembly to pass Senate Bill 9 (SB 9), his flawed measure designed to allow juvenile murderers with a life sentence to instead be eligible for parole, stating that the bill “comports with the rationale of the court.”[5] SB 9 has been awaiting a vote for almost a year after Senator Yee and other Democrat members pushed it through committees in both houses but ultimately failed to secure passage in a final bid on the floor of the California State Assembly. However, nothing inMiller v. Alabama requires enactment of the bill or even suggests that it is necessary. In fact, the court’s comments regarding California’s existing system, citing the rare use of LWOP and its discretionary nature, appeared to be quite favorable.

In reality, SB 9 and other similar measures aimed at helping these notorious juvenile murderers are sad testaments to the unfortunate fact that all too often in our society it is the offenders rather than the victims and their families who receive attention and support years after the horror of crime has faded from public memory.  It is those families that are forced to live with the death of their loved ones and if SB 9 passes the legislature in August, they will also have to live with the broken promise of our justice system. In the case of Adam Sarabia, Deputy District Attorney Richard Simon noted that “there’s some closure for families, knowing he has no hope of ever getting out and that he has nothing to look forward to except life in prison. It doesn’t bring anybody back, but it’s at least something.” The legislature should consider those words of wisdom.

[1] Barnes, Lynne “Teen Found Guilty in 2 Deaths” Los Angeles Times 10 Mar, 2004
[2] Miller v. Alabama. No. 10-9646. Supreme Ct. of the US. 25 June 2012.
[3] According to statistics provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as of July 2011.
[4] Penal Code § 190.5
[5] Keigwin, Adam J. “Yee Issues Statement on Supreme Court Ruling on Juvenile Life Without Parole.” Office of State Senator Leland Yee, Ph.D. June 25, 2010.
For more information on this report or other Public Safety issues, contact Eric Csizmar, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1772.

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