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Youth offenders sentenced to LWOP are entitled to Youth Offender Parole Hearing and Franklin Hearing

People v. Hardin (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 18, 2022, No. B315434) 2022 WL 10272623, at *1

Youth Offender Parol Hearings and Franklin Hearings

An individual convicted of a crime with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole before he was 18 years old is eligible for release on parole at a youth offender parole hearing at the beginning of the 25th year of incarceration. (Pen. Code, § 3051, subd. (b)(4).)

 Also, an individual who was 25 years old or younger, and sentenced to an indeterminate state prison term of 25 years to life, including first degree premeditated murder, is eligible for release on parole at a youth offender parole hearing at the beginning of the 25th year of incarceration. (§ 3051, subd. (b)(3).)

However, an individual who received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for an offense committed after attaining the age of 18 is not eligible for a youth offender parole hearing (§ 3051, subd. (h)) or entitled to parole consideration.

 Hardin, was convicted of special-circumstance felony murder for a crime committed when he was 25 years old. He contends it violates his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to exclude him from youth offender parole consideration, while a 17-year-old who committed special-circumstance murder and a young adult who committed first degree premeditated murder when 25 years old or younger but was convicted of the crime without a special-circumstance finding are entitled to such consideration. He  argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a Franklin hearing to assemble information concerning youth-related mitigating factors for an eventual youth offender parole hearing.

Legislature acted rationally in deciding that individuals sentenced to life without parole for a special-circumstance murder committed while still a minor (16 or 17 years old) were entitled to a youth offender parole hearing but young adults who committed the same offense after turning 18 were not.

The  Legislature’s distinguished  between young adult offenders who committed a special-circumstance murder and were sentenced to life without parole and other young adult offenders who committed different serious or violent crimes and received parole-eligible indeterminate life terms, including those that could be the functional equivalent of a life without parole sentence.  Section 3051 generally provides youth offender parole hearings for individuals convicted of a controlling offense committed when the person was 25 years old or younger because the distinctive attributes of youth mitigate culpability and offer the possibility of growth and change. There is no rational basis for the Legislature to exclude otherwise similarly situated offenders from any opportunity for a youth offender parole hearing based solely on the crime committed or the sentence imposed, factors unrelated to a determination the offender is “irreparably corrupt.”

Hardin is entitled to a youth offender parole hearing and a meaningful opportunity to be released on parole at some point and is also entitled to a Franklin hearing to assemble information concerning his youth-related mitigating factors.

Indeterminate Life Sentencing and Youth Offender Parole Hearings

In Roper v. Simmons, the United States Supreme Court held the Eighth Amendment’s ban on the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment categorically prohibited imposition of the death penalty on youths under the age of 18. Five years later in Graham, the Supreme Court, emphasizing a juvenile

offender’s “capacity for change and limited moral culpability,” held it violated the Eighth Amendment to impose a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile offender who had not committed homicide.

Two years after Graham, in Miller, the Supreme Court held it also violated the Eighth Amendment to impose a mandatory life without parole sentence on a juvenile convicted of murder because that mandatory penalty precludes consideration of the juvenile’s chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. A sentence of life without parole on a juvenile that fails to take these youth-related mitigating factors into account, the Court held, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The California Supreme Court held in People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262, that the Eighth Amendment analysis in Graham also applied to sentences that are the “functional equivalent of a life without parole sentence,” including Caballero’s term of 110 years to life.

The Legislature in Senate Bill No. 260, effective January 1, 2014, added sections 3051 and 4801, subdivision (c), to the Penal Code, providing for youth offender parole hearings at which youth-related mitigating factors are to be considered. Section 3051 initially applied to offenses committed before the offender turned 18 years old and required the Board of Parole Hearings with certain limited exceptions to conduct a youth offender parole hearing no later than a juvenile offender’s 25th year of incarceration Section 4801, subdivision (c), directed the Board of Parole Hearings, when considering parole eligibility for youth offenders, to “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.” As originally enacted former section 3051, subdivision (h), expressly excluded from eligibility for a youth offender parole hearing cases in which sentencing was pursuant to the three strikes law (§§ 667, subds. (b)-(i), 1170.12), the one strike law (§ 667.61) “or in which an individual was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” (Stats. 2013, ch. 312, § 4.)

Sections 3051 was subsequently amended to apply to offenders who had committed the controlling offense before the age of 23 and then to offenders who committed the controlling offense when 25 years old or younger.  In addition, in the 2017 legislation raising the threshold age to 25, the Legislature extended youth parole hearings in the 25th year of incarceration to juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a controlling offense committed before the age of 18. Section 3051, subdivision (h), was amended to limit the exclusion of individuals sentenced to life in prison without parole to cases in which the sentence was imposed for a controlling offense committed “after the person had attained 18 years of age.”  The amendments authorizing youth parole hearings for minors sentenced to life without parole were designed to bring California into compliance with the constitutional requirements of Miller and Montgomery.

Young adult offenders sentenced to life without parole are similarly situated to all other young adult offenders for purposes of section 3051

For equal protection analysis the question is whether the two groups are properly distinguishable for purposes of the law being challenged, even if they are dissimilar for other (or even most) purposes.

Section 3051’s intended purpose is permitting a determination whether a person who committed a serious or violent crime between the age of 18 and 25 has sufficiently matured and outgrown the youthful impulses that led to the commission of the offense. An individual serving a parole-eligible life sentence and a person who committed an offense at the same age serving a sentence of life without parole are similarly situated.

There is no rational basis for distinguishing between young adult offenders sentenced to life without parole and other young adult offenders for purposes of section 3051. The Legislature has recognized that the distinctive attributes of youth, justify providing most individuals convicted of committing violent crimes when they were under 26 years of age with a meaningful opportunity for parole through a youth offender parole hearing. Yet similarly situated young adult offenders sentenced to life without parole are categorically denied the same right. Absent a rational basis for that exclusion, the disparate treatment of offenders like Hardin violates Equal Protection.

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