Why Youth are Serving Life without Parole in California

A conviction in criminal court means punishment: retribution is the primary objective. In contrast, the juvenile justice system is built on the recognition that young people should be given second chances and the tools to turn their lives around. While punishment is one goal, juvenile court also aims for rehabilitative treatment and remedial support. A teen tried in adult court, however, faces an adult sentence, including the most serious penalties available under the law, with the exception only of the death penalty. When the sentence is life without parole, a decision has been made to throw that young person’s life away.16

In California there are several mechanisms by which someone under the age of 18 can end up in adult criminal court, facing adult penalties. A judge can preside over a “fitness hearing” to assess the youth’s amenability to rehabilitation in the juvenile system and the seriousness of the crime.17 In addition, California is just one of 15 states that allows prosecutors to file a case directly in adult court, without a hearing or any judicial oversight determining whether the decision to send a juvenile to the adult system is appropriate.18 Finally, California is one of 29 states that mandates a juvenile’s transfer to adult court if he or she is accused of committing certain crimes.19

Crimes that Result in a Life without Parole Sentence

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Patricia L. was 15 in this photo and 16 at the time of her crime. © 2008 Private.

Under California law, certain criminal convictions are presumed by law to result in a life without parole sentence.20 For example, a judge must sentence a 16-year-old to life without parole if he or she was convicted of murder with special circumstances (discussed in detail below).21 Life without parole is generally mandatory in such cases, with only one limited exception: if a judge finds good reason to instead impose a sentence of 25 years to life.22 The California appellate court, however, has made clear that judicial discretion to impose the lesser sentence of 25 years to life operates as the exception, not the rule: “Life without parole is the presumptive punishment for 16- or 17-year-old[s]…and the court's discretion is concomitantly circumscribed to that extent,” stated the California Court of Appeals in its 1994 decision People v. Guinn.23

Of the 227 youths who have been sentenced to life without parole in California, 217 were convicted of the crime of first degree murder with special circumstances.24 Some serving life without parole, however, were convicted for crimes other than murder. 25 For example, one person serving life without parole in California was 14 years old when he committed a kidnapping that resulted in his sentence. No one was injured in that incident.26

The vast majority youth offender life without parole cases, however, are cases charged as murder with special circumstances. The California Penal Code delineates the circumstances that increase the seriousness of a murder conviction, including a murder committed during the course of a felony, a murder related to gang activity, murder for financial gain, and murder by means of lying in wait, among 22 total special circumstances. 27

Although the term “murder with special circumstances” may conjure images of the most heinous and calculated homicides, the facts of California’s juvenile life without parole cases vary widely in the violence and seriousness and the teenager’s degree of participation. There is no question that murder causes far-reaching devastation for families and communities. Not every murder, however, is especially brutal or heinous. Based on interviews and case-specific research, Human Rights Watch found that in cases involving juveniles, the special circumstances are not reliable indicators of the level of violence, premeditation, or responsibility involved in the murder.

16 Juvenile courts have long had mechanisms for transferring youth to the adult criminal system. The past two decades, however, have seen considerable change in the law, shaped by an increasingly punitive stance towards teen crime nationwide. The number of avenues for prosecuting a teenager as an adult in the United States has increased significantly during this period. See Aaron Kupchik, et al., “Punishment, Proportionality, and Jurisdictional Transfer of Adolescent Offenders: A Test of the Leniency Gap Hypothesis,”Stanford Law and Policy Review, (2003), vol. 14, p. 57. In 2000, California joined the trend by mandating that teens as young as 14 be prosecuted in criminal court if accused of committing certain offenses. See California Welfare & Institutions Code §707.

17 California Welfare & Institutions Code §707.

18 National Center for Juvenile Justice, research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, "National Overviews, State Juvenile Justice Profiles,” 2004, (accessed November 5, 2007). California Welfare & Institutions Code §707.

19 Ibid.

20 Crimes carrying a life without parole sentence upon conviction include: kidnapping for ransom or extortion with violence, California Penal Code §209(a); murder with special circumstances, California Penal Code §190.2; perjury in capital case causing the execution of the defendant, California Penal Code §12; placing a bomb causing death, California Penal Code §12310(a); treason, California Penal Code §37; wrecking a bridge, California Penal Code §219; wrecking a train, California Penal Code §218; and using a weapon of mass destruction causing death, California Penal Code §11418(b)(2).The law specifically states that only 16- and 17-year-old juveniles may be sentenced to life without parole for murder, while younger juveniles face a life without parole sentence for other crimes.

21 California Penal Code §190.5(b) specifies that the penalty for a murder committed with special circumstances by a 16- or 17-year-old is life in prison without parole.

22 The California Court of Appeals in People v. Guinn interpreted the law as follows: “We believe Penal Code section 190.5 means, contrary to the apparent presumption of defendant's argument, that 16- or 17-year-olds who commit special circumstance murder must be sentenced to life without parole, unless the court, in its discretion, finds good reason to choose the less severe sentence of 25 years to life.” People v. Guinn, 28 Cal. App.4th 1130, 1141 (1994), p.1141.

23 Ibid., p. 1142. The Court characterized the scope of judicial discretion in the following way: “The fact that a court might grant leniency in some cases…does not detract from the generally mandatory imposition of life without parole as the punishment for a youthful special-circumstance murderer.”

24 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) data. This information indicates that 10 youth offenders are serving life without parole for crimes other than murder with special circumstances. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently confirm the convictions in these cases.

25 Based on records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, three youth offenders are serving life without parole for kidnapping under California Penal Code §209(a).

26 Human Rights Watch has reviewed the non-published court opinion and several news articles on the case of Antonio Nunez. According to these sources he was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences as well as life without parole for his participation in a kidnapping for ransom, a freeway chase, and shootout with police. His case has been further researched by the Equal Justice Initiative, which found mitigating factors not considered by the court. See Equal Justice Initiative, “Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year Old Children to Die in Prison,” November 2007.

27 The special circumstances are murders: (1) carried out for financial gain; (2) committed by a defendant who was convicted previously of murder in the first or second degree; (3) committed by a defendant who has been convicted of more than one offense of murder; (4) committed by means of a destructive device, bomb, or explosive planted or hidden; (5) committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or attempting an escape from lawful custody; (6) committed by means of a destructive device, bomb, or explosive mailed or delivered; and murders in  which: (7) the victim was a peace officer; (8) the victim was a federal law enforcement officer; (9) the victim was a firefighter; (10) the victim was a witness to a crime who was killed for the purpose of preventing his or her testimony; (11) the victim was a prosecutor or assistant prosecutor or a former prosecutor or assistant prosecutor; (12) the victim was a judge or former judge of any court of record; (13) the victim was an elected or appointed government official or former government official; (14) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity; (15) the defendant killed by means of lying in wait; (16) the victim was killed because of his or her race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin; (17) the defendant was engaged in, or was an accomplice in, the commission of, attempted commission of, or the immediate flight after committing the following felonies: (A) robbery; (B) kidnapping; (C) rape; (D) sodomy; (E) a lewd or lascivious act upon the person of a child under the age of 14 years; (F) oral copulation in violation of Section 288a; (G) burglary in the first or second degree; (H) arson; (I) train wrecking; (J) mayhem; (K) rape by instrument; (L) carjacking; (18) infliction of torture; (19) poison is used; (20) the victim was a juror in any court of record in the local, state, or federal system in this or any other state; (21) the defendant discharged a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person or persons outside the vehicle with the intent to inflict death; and (22) the defendant was an active participant in a criminal street gang and the murder was carried out to further the activities of the criminal street gang. This is a summary of the 22 special circumstances; for a more detailed explanation see California Penal 190.2.