Here’s the succinct bottom-line outcome relevant to a recently issued California Supreme Court ruling: A 50-year prison term for a minor is a no-go.
In fact, noted the court’s decision announced late last month, such a sentence is “functionally equivalent” to a life behind bars with no chance of parole. The tribunal held in a narrow 4-3 opinion that such a disposition constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.
California’s judicial take on the matter clearly relied on momentum garnered from a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that announced a material cutback in life sentences being doled out to adolescents for violent crimes. The California opinion pointed to the earlier decision in discussing its rationale.
The reasoning cited for a legal adjustment was duly clear. The court expressly noted a juvenile’s “limited ability to consider consequences” when engaging in criminal behavior. And it also noted that a minor slapped with a 50-year term of incarceration “has little incentive to become a responsible individual.”
Ultimately, concluded the justices siding in the majority opinion, there is no practical difference between a 50-year lockup and a life term for juveniles looking forward. Moreover, both outcomes stifle motivation to rehabilitate.
One disagreeing judge — the tribunal’s chief justice — argued that any imposed outcome should be deemed lawful that leaves open the possibility of parole during an inmate’s lifetime. She stated that “profound life experiences still may lie ahead” even for individuals sentenced as juveniles who ultimately leave prison at advanced ages.