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California Court of Appeal: § 3051’s Exclusion of One Strike Offenders from Youthful Offender Parole Hearings Violates Equal Protection

Woods was convicted by a jury of numerous offenses, including forcible rape. He was sentenced on that offense to a term of 25 years to life under former One Strike Law § 667.61, subds. (a) & (g) (“OSL”). (Note: Due to his many convictions, Woods received an aggregate prison term of 82 years 4 months to life.) His conviction was affirmed on appeal. But in 2019, he petitioned for habeas relief, arguing, inter alia, that his right to equal protection is violated by the provision of § 3051 that makes him ineligible for a youth offender parole hearing.

The Court observed “[i]n Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the United States Supreme Court [“SCOTUS”] held that the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the sentence of life without parole (LWOP) for a juvenile offender who did not commit a homicide.” SCOTUS explained that “[a]s compared to adults, juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” Id. They are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure, and their characters are not as well formed. Id. Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievably depraved character than compared to adults. Id. Consequently, juveniles are less deserving of the most severe punishments, and LWOP is the second most severe penalty permitted by law. Id.

People v. Caballero, 282 P.3d 291 (Cal. 2012), extended Graham to sentences that are the functional equivalent of LWOP, ruling that “sentencing a juvenile offender for a nonhomicide offense to a term of years with a parole eligibility date that falls outside the juvenile offender’s natural life expectancy constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” Prompted by the Caballero decision, the Legislature enacted § 3051 to establish a parole eligibility mechanism for defendants convicted as juveniles who were serving de facto life sentences for nonhomicide crimes. People v. Edwards, 34 Cal.App.5th 183 (2019).

But the statute went further and also provided opportunity for parole consideration for crimes involving homicide. Id. The statute was amended numerous times and currently defines those eligible for youth offender parole hearings as any “person who was convicted of a controlling offense that was committed when the person was 25 years of age or younger and for which the sentence is a ... term of 25 years to life.” Woods’ controlling offense was the forcible rape conviction. But § 3051, subd. (h) provides an exception that excludes Woods because he was convicted after he was 18 years of age and he was sentenced under the OSL. Woods’ argument was that he was denied equal protection because the statute denies him a youthful parole hearing while at the same time the statute permits such hearings to defendants convicted of first-degree murder.

To succeed on a claimed violation of the right to equal protection, the petitioner must first show that the government has adopted a classification system that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner. Cooley v. Superior Court, 57 P.3d 654 (Cal. 2002). If that showing is made but the different treatment doesn’t implicate a suspect class or fundamental right, the petitioner must further show there is no rational basis for the different treatment. Johnson v. Department of Justice, 341 P.3d 1075 (Cal. 2015).

The Court first determined that defendants convicted of sex offenses and those convicted of murder were “similarly situated” in relation to the benefit of the statute under consideration, i.e., parole hearings as youthful offenders based on a showing of rehabilitation and maturity.
People v. McKee, 223 P.3d 566 (Cal. 2010).

Because the instant case implicated neither a suspect class nor a fundamental right, the Court then examined whether there was a rational basis for the disparate treatment. The Court reasoned that the “legal and scientific foundations supporting the rationale that youths have diminished culpability, such as a youth’s ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility [Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)],’ and the goal of calibrating punishment accordingly apply to the youthful murderer and the youthful sex offender. The corollary principle that the increased maturity that comes with age will reduce the likelihood of offenses [also] applies to both groups of offenders.” Thus, the Court concluded that no rational basis exists for the disparate treatment and that Woods is entitled to a youthful parole hearing during his 25th year of incarceration.

Accordingly, the Court granted his petition. See: In re Woods, 2021 Cal. App. LEXIS 286 (2021). 

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