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Making sense of California youth sentences

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 that unusually long sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. So what does this mean for juveniles being sentenced today, and those sentenced before them?

Youth Radio's Sayre Quevedo tries to make sense of how these extraordinarily long sentences happen in the first place, and what this means for the future of California's approach to Juvenile Justice.

Rodrigo 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.

“California has some very tough sentencing laws,” says David Durchfort.

That’s David Durchfort. He’s Caballero’s lawyer. He says 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 a serious injury, you add an extra fifteen years,” says Durchfort.

That’s fifteen years per victim. 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,” says Durchfort.

Dan MacAllair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, calls that “a horrendous penalty.”

MacAllair says that sentencing juveniles to life in prison or its equivalent doesn’t reflect teens’ ability to reform.

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

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,” says MacAllair.

That’s 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,” says 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 certain pressures like whether they are facing re-election,” says Dan MacAllair. “And many of them are ex-prosecutors themselves. The only thing I can predict with certainty is that you’ll have huge variations.”

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.

This story was produced by Youth Radio, and their Juvenile Justice desk.

Crosscurrents youth