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This Is Troubling: Loophole Lets California Lock Up Teens for Life

Should young people serve life sentences for non-murder related crimes? A California Supreme Court decision will soon decide.

Rodrigo Caballero was no angel. Back in the summer of 2007, he unloaded his gun at three rival gang members in Palmdale, California, wounding one seriously. Though he had no history of violent crime, he testified in court that he had been trying to kill his targets. Caballero was convicted of three counts of attempted murder, which along with "special enhancements" (see the graphic breakdown below produced by Teresa Chin of the juvenile justice desk at Youth Radio), would keep him behind bars until he turns 126.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it is unconstitutional to sentence a minor to "life without parole" except for homicide, cases like Caballero’s fall under a gray area based on the wording of the law. Even though Caballero will almost certainly die in prison before he is eligible for parole (at the age of 126), his sentence may still be considered constitutional because it does not explicitly contain the magic words "life without parole."


In other words, a semantic sleight of hand and elaborate arithmetic allowed a California judge to give Caballero what will almost certainly be a life sentence, even though he didn't kill anyone and the U.S. Supreme Court says life sentences for teens are unconstitutional except in cases of homicide. That's not only a troubling loophole, it's also costly. Our prison system is overcrowded and expensive—each inmate costs California taxpayers roughly $50,000 per year with costs tripling for prisoners over the age of 55.

Sentencing a juvenile to life also means giving up on the possibility of rehabilitation, even though science has shown that the young brain is more impulsive, less capable of seeing consequences, and more malleable. (An upcoming Kickstarter-funded documentary by Tirtza Even, Natural Life, will tell the heartbreaking stories of six inmates serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.) Indeed, there are some dramatic case studies of violent juvenile offenders who have, upon release, become admirable forces of good. At 17, Raphael Johnson shot and killed a young man, but after release earned both a bachelor's and a master's and went on to found an aggressive community policing effort in Detroit and even ran for public office.

California has more minors serving life-without-parole sentences than any other state, and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing two cases of juvenile murderers serving life-without-parole sentences in consideration of deeming such sentences unconstitutional. This ruling will apply only to inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles 14 years or younger, however.
As the graphic above shows, Caballero's sentence was ratcheted up by "special enhancements." He got an extra 30 years because his case was gang-related and another 30 because he used a gun. These "special enhancements" mean that he, and other kids—and they are kids, after all—can be effectively locked up for life in defiance of the spirit, if not the letter, of the U.S. Constitution. It's an egregious waste of life and taxpayer money.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Bob Jagendorf

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