15 Years Old … to Life
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US Supreme Court Bars Mandatory Life Terms for Youth

July 12, 2012

States may not automatically impose mandatory life sentences without parole on juveniles, even those convicted of taking part in a murder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, reports the New York Times. The 5 to 4 ruling deemed such sentences cruel and unusual punishment. Nearly 2,500 juvenile offenders in the United States are serving life terms without parole.


15 Years Old … to Life

May 2012

illustration by Dan Page

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Not long after David DeAndre Lewis's 15th birthday, he was one of several uninvited attendees at a Stockton party that ended in a gang-related shootout. Eric Washington-Castillo, also 15, died in the gunfire.

Lewis and two alleged members of the Northside Gangster Crips were convicted of multiple felonies - for Lewis that included murder, three counts of attempted murder, and gang participation. He was sentenced to several prison terms, including life without parole.

The Stockton shootout took place seven years ago. Today, at age 22, Lewis is one of more than 300 Californians who committed major felonies as juveniles and are now serving life sentences without parole. Virtually all of these inmates were convicted of homicide, according to Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (Two committed kidnap for ransom.)

In March the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether a lifelong sentence for defendants as young as 14 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Constitution (Miller v. Alabama (pending as No. 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (pending as No. 10-9647)). A decision is expected by June. The United States is currently the only nation in the world that sentences minors to life without parole.

Meanwhile, a bill pending in the California Senate would allow for review of such sentences for juveniles. SB 9, authored by Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, would permit review only after the defendants have served at least 15 years of their sentences.

Many lawyers and experts argue that a critical mass of scientific evidence establishing major deficits of self-control and judgment in the average adolescent's brain should persuade courts to spare them this most adult of consequences.

"Having an adolescent brain should in itself qualify as an insanity defense," argues Nevada City attorney Stephen M. Greenberg, who is handling Lewis's appeal. "Their brains are still forming into adult brains." The argument doesn't constitute an excuse, he adds, just as the insanity defense for adults doesn't qualify as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Nonetheless, he says, "The idea of giving juveniles sentences of life in prison and throwing away the key makes no rational or moral sense."

Throughout the United States, a total of 73 life-without-parole inmates were 14 years old when they committed their crimes. In California, the youngest defendants are Lewis and Francisco Mendez, another convicted killer from the San Joaquin Valley, both 15 at the time of their crimes.

Lewis is an eighth-grade dropout who may have suffered mental problems from a head injury at age 12, according to Greenberg. Lewis confessed to firing a gun, but said it was in self-defense.

In Mendez's case, the prosecutor said he was riding in a car from which shots were fired, after Mendez handed the gun to the driver.

Mendez's appellate attorney, Jerry D. Whatley of Santa Barbara, and Greenberg each have argued that the trial judges reached their sentences in error, since state law expressly forbids sentences of life without parole for defendants younger than 16. (See Cal. Penal Code § 190.5(b).)

The California law that permits juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole for murder was enacted in 1990. More get-tough laws followed a decade later, as a product of Proposition 21. Among other things, that ballot initiative mandated harsher punishment for gang-related felonies, and it required adult trials for juveniles over age 14 who are charged with murder or certain sex offenses.

Nationwide, as many as 200,000 youths are prosecuted as adults every year. In all but five states today, teenagers can be charged as adults at a judge's discretion, and 29 states require minors to be tried as adults for some crimes.

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