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110-year sentence for teenager is ruled unconstitutional

August 16, 2012 |  4:38 pm

Sentencing a juvenile offender to 110 years to life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday as it struck down a sentence in a Los Angeles County attempted murder case.

The state high court’s decision comes as courts across the nation are grappling with the ramifications of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile convicted of a crime other than murder to life in prison without parole. 

The California Supreme Court ruled on the case of Rodrigo Caballero, a Palmdale gang member and a diagnosed schizophrenic who in 2007 shot at three rival gang members. Caballero was 16 at the time. One of the victims was struck near the shoulder blades; the other two were uninjured. Caballero was convicted of three counts of attempted murder and sentenced to additional prison terms for his use of a firearm in the crime and his gang affiliation. 

Caballero’s sentence fell into a legal gray area after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, because although he was not given a life term without parole, his sentence of 110 years to life had essentially the same effect -- he would not become eligible for parole within his expected lifetime.

An appellate court last year upheld his sentence, saying the case fell outside the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. 

In the decision handed down Thursday, the California Supreme Court found that juveniles such as Caballero should be given the opportunity, within their lifetimes, to show they had matured and seek release. 

The state "may not deprive them at sentencing of a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate their rehabilitation and fitness to reenter society in the future," Justice Ming W. Chin wrote.

Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco who filed an amicus brief in the case, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation statistics suggest the decision would probably directly impact only a small number of cases in the state.

She said, however, that the case was closely watched by juvenile justice experts, who considered it an important part of a larger debate over the importance of a minor's age and immaturity in deciding an appropriate punishment for a juvenile offender.

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-- Victoria Kim

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