10/19/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Making Sense Of California Youth Sentences

By Sayre Quevedo

For juveniles in California being sentenced for crimes, things just got a little more complicated. Proposition 21 requires mandatory minimums for juveniles that often translate into long sentences. In California alone, there are hundreds of inmates serving juvenile sentences totaling between 50 and 200 years. Advocates argue that these sentences are the equivalent of Life without Parole.

This summer, the State Supreme Court agreed and ruled unusually long sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. So what does this mean for juveniles being sentenced today, and those sentenced before them?

How do these extraordinarily long sentences happen in the first place? And what does this mean for the future of California’s approach to Juvenile Justice?

Rodrigo Caballero is among those waiting to find out.

Caballero was no angel. When he was 16 years old , he was convicted of three counts of attempted murder for shooting at rival gang members in his hometown of Palmdale, California. Caballero’s case attracted a lot of attention, but not because of what he did. It had more to do with his sentence -- 110 years in prison with no chance of parole.

David Durchfort, Caballero’s lawyer, said, “Well, California has some very tough sentencing laws.”

Caballero’s long sentence was a product of something called enhancements. Those are special circumstances that automatically tack on years to a juvenile’s sentence. And they add up quick.

“For example if you use a gun you add an extra 10 years, if you injure someone, you add an extra ten years, if it’s serious injury, you add an extra fifteen years,” said Durchfort.

Multiply that by the number of victims. So going back to Caballero’s case, where he shot at three people and injured one, he received 35 plus 35 plus 40 years in prison.

“Hence he got a sentence of 110 years minimum to a maximum of life,” said Durchfort.

“It’s a horrendous penalty,” said Dan Macallair, the executive director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He says that sentencing juveniles to life in prison or its equivalent doesn’t reflect teens’ ability to reform.

“I’m 56 now; I don’t remember what I did 30 years ago. Probably some things I want to forget,” said Macallair.

The idea that kids can change isn’t new -- the juvenile justice system was founded on that idea way back in the day. But in the late 1980s, rising rates of gang violence caused many states to toughen up on youth crime.

“Virtually every state in the country, including the District of Columbia, passed laws that made it easier to transfer kids to adult court and increased length of sentences that kids would serve in correctional facilities, said Macallair.

Including California. But now the state is shifting philosophies again, embracing reform over punishment. Earlier this summer, for example, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Caballero, calling long juvenile sentences like his unconstitutional. And more recently Governor Jerry Brown signed SB-9, which gives kids with life sentences the chance to appeal after 15 years. But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to give young offenders a second chance.

“They’re shooting people, they’re killing people, they’re robbing. They’re doing the most serious of crimes and they're being dealt with accordingly,” said Robert Sherwood, the prosecutor in Caballero’s case. His views aren’t reflected in the new legislation, but chances are, inmates appealing their sentences will have to face someone like him. Maybe even behind the bench.

“How the individual judges in particular counties will respond depends on the pressure they face. Are they facing reelection? Many of them are ex-prosecutors themselves. The only thing I can predict with certainty is that you’ll have huge variations,” said Macallair.

In other words, there’s no guarantee inmates convicted as juveniles will be released. And given that some counties have more conservative judges than others, where you’re tried might end up being more important than what you did.


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