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LWOP offenders may be denied Youthful Offender Parole Hearing  

In re Murray (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 19, 2021, No. A161687) 2021 WL 1526490, at *1–5

 Summary Paul Murray was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for a first degree special circumstance murder he committed when he was 22 years old. Murray sought a hearing pursuant to People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261, because he stated was eligible for a Penal Code section 3051 youth offender parole hearing. The trial court denied his request because section 3051 expressly exclude LWOP offenders who were 18 years old or older at the time of their offense. Murray filed a habeas petition and argued that  section 3051 violates his constitutional right to equal protection by affording juvenile LWOP offenders a youth offender parole hearing but denying such a hearing to youthful LWOP offenders. The Court of Appeal concluded that there is a rational basis for distinguishing between juvenile and youthful LWOP offenders in this context, and thus deny his petition.

Murray’s equal protection claim

Murray argued a violation of his equal protection rights based on section 3051, subdivision (h), which excludes from the benefits of the statute individuals sentenced to LWOP who were 18 years of age or older at the time of their offense. According to petitioner, the statute violates his right to equal protection by affording juvenile LWOP offenders (those under 18 at the time of their offense) a youth offender parole hearing while denying youthful LWOP offenders (those 18 to 25 years old at the time of their offense) a hearing.

Youth Offender Parole Hearings

“The Legislature first enacted section 3051 in 2013 in response to a series of decisions concerning Eighth Amendment limitations on juvenile sentencing. (See Graham [v. Florida] 560 U.S. [48,] 74 [130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825] [juvenile who commits nonhomicide offense cannot be sentenced to LWOP]; Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, 465 [132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407] [juvenile who commits homicide offense cannot be sentenced automatically to LWOP]; People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262, 268 [145 Cal.Rptr.3d 286, 282 P.3d 291] [juvenile cannot be sentenced to functional equivalent of LWOP for a nonhomicide offense].) These decisions rested in part ‘on science and social science’ (Miller, at p. 471 [132 S.Ct. 2455]), and noted that ‘developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds’ and in the ‘parts of the brain involved in behavior control’ (Graham, at p. 68, 130 S.Ct. 2011; see Caballero, at p. 266, 145 Cal.Rptr.3d 286, 282 P.3d 291).

“ ‘[T]he Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 260 [(2013–2014 Reg. Sess.)] explicitly to bring juvenile sentencing into conformity with Graham, Miller, and Caballero.’ (People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261, 277, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053.) In enacting section 3051, the Legislature explained that ‘youthfulness both lessens a juvenile’s moral culpability and enhances the prospect that, as a youth matures into an adult and neurological development occurs, these individuals can become contributing members of society.’ (Stats. 2013, ch. 312, § 1.) The bill’s stated purpose was ‘to establish a parole eligibility mechanism that provides a person serving a sentence for crimes that he or she committed as a juvenile the opportunity to obtain release when he or she has shown that he or she has been rehabilitated and gained maturity, in accordance with the decision of the California Supreme Court in [Caballero] and the decisions of the United States Supreme Court in [Graham and Miller].’ (Ibid.)

“As originally enacted, section 3051 only afforded a youth parole eligibility hearing to juvenile offenders, not to young adults. (In re Trejo (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 972, 981 & fn. 6, 216 Cal.Rptr.3d 855.) It also excluded juveniles who were sentenced to LWOP, since they were already eligible for resentencing under section 1170. (Former § 3051, subd. (h) [‘This section shall not apply to cases … in which an individual is sentenced to’ LWOP], as enacted by Stats. 2013, ch. 312, § 4.) In the years that followed, however, the Legislature expanded section 3051’s provisions on who is eligible for a youth offender parole hearing, ‘recogniz[ing] that the maturity process does not end at 18 and in many cases extends to at least 25 years of age.’ (In re Jones (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 477, 484, 255 Cal.Rptr.3d 571 (conc. opn. of Pollak, J.) (Jones).)

*3 “In 2015, the Legislature expanded section 3051 to apply to offenders who committed crimes at the age of 23 or younger. (Former § 3051, subd. (a)(1), added by Stats. 2015, ch. 471, § 1.) The amendment’s author cited ‘[r]ecent scientific evidence on adolescent and young adult development and neuroscience show[ing] that certain areas of the brain—particularly those affecting judgment and decision-making—do not fully develop until the early-to mid-20s.’ (Sen. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 261 (2015–2016 Reg. Sess.) Apr. 28, 2015, p. 3.)

“In 2017, the Legislature twice amended section 3051. First, the Legislature further increased the age from 23 to 25, such that offenders serving a determinate or life sentence for crimes committed when they were 25 or younger are now eligible for a youth offender parole hearing. (§ 3051, subd. (b); Stats. 2017, ch. 675, § 1.) The amendment’s author cited research that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decisionmaking and impulse control, ‘doesn’t have nearly the functional capacity at age 18 as it does at 25.’ (Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1308 (2017–2018 Reg. Sess.), as amended Mar. 30, 2017, Apr. 25, 2017, p. 2.)

“That same year, the Legislature also amended section 3051 to allow youth offender parole hearings for juveniles—but not young adults—sentenced to LWOP. (§ 3051, subd. (b)(4); Stats. 2017, ch. 684, § 1.) This amendment was designed to ‘bring California into compliance with the constitutional requirements of Millerand Montgomery [v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. 190, 136 S.Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599],’ which held that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders was retroactive. (Sen. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 394 (2017–2018 Reg. Sess.) Mar. 21, 2017, p. 4.) The bill sought ‘to remedy the now unconstitutional juvenile sentences of life without the possibility of parole,’ without the need for ‘a resentencing hearing, which is time-consuming, expensive, and subject to extended appeals.’ (Id. at p. 3.)

“Thus, in its current form, section 3051 ‘permit[s] the reevaluation of the fitness to return to society of persons who committed serious offenses prior to reaching full cognitive and emotional maturity,’ unless the person was ‘between 18 and 25 years of age when they committed their offense [and] sentenced to life without possibility of parole.’ (Jones, supra, 42 Cal.App.5th at p. 485 [255 Cal.Rptr.3d 571] (conc. opn. of Pollak, J.).) It therefore ‘distinguishes both between those who committed their offenses under 18 years of age and those between 18 and 25 years of age, and between offenders 18 to 25 years of age sentenced to prison terms with the possibility of parole and those in the same age group who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.’ (Id. at p. 483 [255 Cal.Rptr.3d 571] (conc. opn. of Pollak, J.).)”  People v. Acosta (2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 769, 775–777, 275 Cal.Rptr.3d 110 (Acosta)

Equal Protection Principles

“The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the California Constitution guarantee all persons the equal protection of the laws.” (People v. Edwards, supra, 34 Cal.App.5th at p. 195, 246 Cal.Rptr.3d 40.) “The right to equal protection of the law is violated when ‘the government … treat[s] a [similarly situated] group of people unequally without some justification.’ ” (People v. Love (2020) 55 Cal.App.5th 273, 287, 269 Cal.Rptr.3d 349.)

“In order to decide whether a statutory distinction is so devoid of even minimal rationality that it is unconstitutional as a matter of equal protection, we typically ask two questions. We first ask whether the state adopted a classification affecting two or more groups that are similarly situated in an unequal manner. (People v. McKee [(2010)] 47 Cal.4th [1172,] 1202 [104 Cal.Rptr.3d 427, 223 P.3d 566].) If we deem the groups at issue similarly situated in all material respects, we consider whether the challenged classification ultimately bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose. (Johnson [v. Department of Justice (2015)] 60 Cal.4th [871,] 881 [183 Cal.Rptr.3d 96, 341 P.3d 1075].) A classification in a statute is presumed rational until the challenger shows that no rational basis for the unequal treatment is reasonably conceivable.

The “ ‘rational basis’ scrutiny is exceedingly deferential: A law will be upheld as long as a court can ‘speculat[e]’ any rational reason for the resulting differential treatment, regardless of whether the ‘speculation has “a foundation in the record,” ’ regardless of whether it can be ‘empirically substantiated,’ and regardless of whether the Legislature ever ‘articulated’ that reason when enacting the law.” (People v. Love, supra, 55 Cal.App.5th at p. 287, 269 Cal.Rptr.3d 349, quoting People v. Turnage (2012) 55 Cal.4th 62, 74, 144 Cal.Rptr.3d 489, 281 P.3d 464.)

No Equal Protection Violation

Murray has not demonstrated there is no rational basis for treating the two groups in an unequal manner.

In deciding the eligibility of LWOP offenders for a section 3051 youth offender parole hearing, the Legislature drew the line at adulthood: those under 18 years old at the time of their offense are eligible, those 18 years old and older are not. When it comes to criminal sentencing, the United States and California Supreme Courts have found the line drawn between juveniles and nonjuveniles to be a rational one. (See, e.g., Miller v. Alabama, supra, 567 U.S. at p. 471, 132 S.Ct. 2455 [“children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing”]; Roper v. Simmons (2005) 543 U.S. 551, 574, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1 [“The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood”]; People v. Gutierrez (2014) 58 Cal.4th 1354, 1380, 171 Cal.Rptr.3d 421, 324 P.3d 245 [the age of 18 “is the line the [United States Supreme Court] has drawn in its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence”];

In denying the petition the court encouraged the Legislature to revisit where it has drawn the line with section 3051, subdivision (h), and to reconsider whether a youthful offender who was sentenced to LWOP for a crime committed at an age while cognitive brain development was still ongoing should be afforded the possibility of release like those under 18 years old at the time of their offense.

 

 

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