Youth as a Mitigating Factor in Criminal Defense
Youth are generally viewed as having less culpability under criminal law than adults who commit similar crimes. The mitigating factors of a defendant’s youth can be used to argue for a court to exercise its discretion to strike enhancements. For example, under section 12022.5, subdivision (c) a court may dismiss or strike the sentence enhancement imposed for personal use of a firearm during commission of a felony.
History of Youth Offender Hearings
Senate Bill 260 took effect on January 1, 2014. The law created a special youth offender parole hearing for inmates who committed their controlling offense before reaching age 18. The intent of the law 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.” It was also intended to “create a process by which growth and maturity of youthful offenders can be assessed and a meaningful opportunity for release established.”
Senate Bill 261 took effect on January 1, 2016 and it expanded youth offender hearings to inmates who were under the age of 23 when they committed their controlling offense.
Assembly Bill 1308 took effect on January 1, 2018 and it expanded youth offender hearings to inmates who were under the age of 26 when they committed their controlling offense.
Senate Bill 394 also took effect on January 1, 2018 and it expanded youth offender hearings to include inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole who were under the age of 18 when they committed their controlling offense.
Source: California department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website
Supreme Court’s recognition of youth as a mitigating factor
The California Supreme Court’s decision , In re Anthony Maurice Cook, Jr., on Habeas Corpus (S240153) (June 3, 2019) crystallizes the importance of the “hallmark features of youth” as a mitigating factor in our criminal justice system. The capacity of youth for regeneration and rehabilitation is the cornerstone of this public and judicial policy.
Cook held that a prisoner who has already been sentenced and is eligible for a Youth Offender parole hearing is entitled to have evidence of youth-related factors preserved by the trial court.
These same youth-related factors inform a court’s discretion to dismiss the enhancements imposed for personal use of a firearm or other enhancements.
Hallmark Features of Youth-Franklin and Youth Offender Parole Hearings
Our Supreme Court in People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261, 269, recognized that a youthful offender who is eligible for a parole hearing parole hearing will be evaluated in light of youth related factors, such as his cognitive ability, character, and social and family background at the time of the offense.
Implicit in the Franklin Procedure and in Youth Offender Parole hearings is the acknowledgment that:
- Youth offenders lack maturity and a sense of responsibility leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking;
- Youth offenders are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including from their family and peers; have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves a criminal environment;
- A Youth offender’s character is not as well formed as an adult’s; his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievable depravity.
The hallmark features of youth include their lack of understanding of the risks and consequences of their actions; lack of impulse control; susceptibility to peer pressure; and lack of control of their life circumstances.
Our legislature requires that the Board “give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the prisoner in accordance with relevant case law.” (PC§ 4801, subd. (c).)
Public Safety and Public Policy favor giving weight to youth-related factors
Young defendants will one day be returned to our community. Providing them with an opportunity and incentive to immerse themselves in vocational and educational training and self-help programs will enable them to become beneficial members of the community after they have served their debt to society.