California’s top court has ruled that sentencing juveniles to 50 years or more in prison violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
But a divided state Supreme Court did not decide what sentence would be constitutional.
The case involves two 16-year-olds convicted of kidnapping and rape at knife point. In 2012, a trial judge sentenced the teenagers to 50 and 58 years in prison, respectively.
Four of California’s seven top justices ruled that’s too long. They say juveniles must have a chance before the end of their lives to show they’ve matured and rehabilitated.
The opinion is largely based on a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which said juveniles can’t be sentenced to life in prison without opportunity for parole, unless they have committed homicide.
The state decision says 50-year-sentences that leave juveniles near the end of their lives constitute cruel and unusual punishment for the same reasons as the nation’s high court found.
In a dissenting opinion, the state’s chief justice and two others argue the U.S. Supreme Court decision did not intend a blanket ban on 50-year-sentences.
The state ruling requires the trial court to determine new sentences for the teenagers, but it does not delineate the length of juvenile sentences that are or are not appropriate.
The opinions also note that California has two new laws this year, which already allow earlier parole both for juvenile inmates who have served 25 years in prison and for prisoners who reach age 60 and have served 25 years.