Excessive Sentencing Project - California

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in California.

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  • California has very limited parole. 
  • California allows for discretionary LWOP and JLWOP 
  • Juveniles can be tried in adult court at age 14. 
State Constitution

Cal Const, Art. I § 17 (2012)

§ 17. Cruel or unusual punishment; Excessive fines

Cruel or unusual punishment may not be inflicted or excessive fines imposed.

NOTE:  Article I, Section 17 of the California Constitution is considered broader than the Eight Amendment because it prohibits either cruel or unusual punishments.

Sentencing Statutes
  1. Sentencing Guidelines System -- California does not have sentencing guidelines
  2. Habitual Offender Statute --
    • Cal Pen Code § 667 (2012)
      § 667.  Habitual criminals; Enhancement; Exceptions
    • Cal Pen Code § 667.7 (2012)
      § 667.7.  Habitual offender
  3. Proportionality Review for Death Sentences -- While California does not require intra-case proportionality review for capital defendants, the defendant may request one. People v. Weaver, 26 Cal. 4th 876, 989 (Cal. 2001). Furthermore,  if the defendant so requests, the court will review the particular facts of the case to determine if the death penalty is proportionate to the defendant’s culpability: “To determine whether a sentence is cruel or unusual as applied to a particular defendant, a reviewing court must examine the circumstances of the offense, including its motive, the extent of the defendant's involvement in the crime, the manner in which the crime was committed, and the consequences of the defendant's acts. The court must also consider the personal characteristics of the defendant, including age, prior criminality, and mental capabilities. If the court concludes that the penalty imposed is grossly disproportionate to the defendant's individual culpability, or, stated another way, that the punishment shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity, the court must invalidate the sentence as unconstitutional.” People v. Leonard, 40 Cal. 4th 1370, 1375 (Cal. 2007);
Case Law

General 

The Legislature’s foremost duty is to define crime and determine punishment.  The validity of these actions should not be challenged unless their unconstitutionality “clearly, positively, and unmistakably appears.” People v. Sullivan, 151 Cal. App. 4th 524, 569-570 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 2007) (quoting People v. Kinsey, 40 Cal. App. 4th 1621, 1630 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1995)).

State Constitution

The Eighth Amendment states that “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be inflicted, while the parallel, Article I, Section 17 of the California Constitution, states that “cruel or unusual punishment may not be inflicted.” This distinction “is purposeful and substantive rather than merely semantic,” and therefore Section 17 is construed separately from the Eighth Amendment.  People v. Carmony, 127 Cal. App. 4th 1066, 1085 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2005) (citing People v. Anderson, 6 Cal.3d 628, 634--637, (Cal. 1972); People v. Weddle, 1 Cal. App. 4th 1190, 1196, fn. 5 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 1991)); seePeople v. Haller, 174 Cal. App. 4th 1080, 1092 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2009).

Article I, Section 17 is construed separately from the federal prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. People v. Carmony, 127 Cal. App. 4th 1066, 1085 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2005) (citing People v. Cartwright, 39 Cal. App. 4th 1123, 1135--1136 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 1995); Raven v. Deukmejian, 52 Cal. 3d 336, 355 (Cal. 1990).

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The Supreme Court of California has “never suggested that article I, section 17 employs a different or broader definition of “punishment” itself than applies under the Eighth Amendment.” In re Alva, 33 Cal. 4th 254, 290-292 (Cal. 2004).

  • Mandatory sex offender registration is not punishment for purposes of Article I, Section 17 of the California Constitution. In re Alva, 33 Cal. 4th 254, 292 (Cal. 2004).

Proportionality 

“Whether a punishment is cruel or unusual is a question of law for the appellate court, but the underlying disputed facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the judgment.” People v. Sullivan, 151 Cal. App. 4th 524, 569-570 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 2007) (quoting People v. Martinez, 76 Cal. App. 4th 489, 496 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1999) ).

Because a defendant must overcome a considerable burden to show that his sentence is disproportionate to his offense, courts rarely find sentences disproportionate. People v. Em, 171 Cal. App. 4th 964, 972 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2009)

A reviewing court determines whether a punishment “‘is so disproportionate to the crime for which it is inflicted that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity, thereby violating the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment of the Eighth Amendment of the federal constitution or against cruel or unusual punishment of article I, section 17 of the California Constitution.” People v. Cole, 33 Cal. 4th 1158, 1235 (Cal. 2004) (citing Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 290--292 (1983) (internal citations removed)); seePeople v. Young, 34 Cal. 4th 1149, 1231 (Cal. 2005); People v. Dennis, 17 Cal. 4th 468, 511-512 (Cal. 1998); People v. Bunyard, 45 Cal. 3d 1189, 1240 (Cal. 1988).

To determine whether, under Article I, Section 17 of the California Constitution, a sentence is cruel and unusual as applied to a particular offender, “a reviewing court must examine the circumstances of the offense, including its motive, the extent of the defendant's involvement in the crime, the manner in which the crime was committed, and the consequences of the defendant's acts. The court must also consider the personal characteristics of the defendant, including age, prior criminality, and mental capabilities.” People v. Young, 34 Cal. 4th 1149, 1231 (Cal. 2005) (citing People v. Hines 15 Cal. 4th 997, 1078 (Cal. 1997)); People v. Leonard, 40 Cal. 4th 1370, 1375-1427 (Cal. 2007) (citing People v. Dillon, 34 Cal. 3d 441 (Cal. 1983) (overruled on other grounds)); People v. Panah, 35 Cal. 4th 395 (Cal. 2005); People v. Cole, 33 Cal. 4th 1158, 1235 (Cal. 2004); People v. Lucero, 23 Cal. 4th 692, 739-740 (Cal. 2000); People v. Hines, 15 Cal. 4th 997, 1078 (Cal. 1997); seePeople v. Em, 171 Cal. App. 4th 964, 976 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2009).

To determine whether punishment is disproportionate in violation of the cruel or unusual punishment clause of the California Constitution, California courts rely on a three-prong test. The court examines: (1) the nature of the offense and the offender, with particular regard to the danger both present to society; (2) punishments imposed within California for more serious offenses; and (3) punishments imposed by other jurisdictions for the same offense. People v. Em, 171 Cal. App. 4th 964, 972 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2009) (quoting (In re Lynch, 8 Cal. 3d 410, 425 (Cal. 1972)); In re Grant, 18 Cal. 3d 1, 8-9 (Cal. 1976); seePeople v. Blackwell, 202 Cal. App. 4th 144 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 2011). 

In regards to the first prong, the court must consider not only the offense as defined by statute, but also the facts of the actual offense. This includes the motive of the offense, the manner of commission, the extent of the offender’s involvement, and the consequences of his behavior. The court “must also consider the defendant's individual culpability in light of his age, prior criminality, personal characteristics, and state of mind.” People v. Uecker, 172 Cal. App. 4th 583, 600 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2009) (quoting People v. Crooks, 55 Cal. App. 4th 797, 806 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 1997)).

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When arguing that his sentence is grossly disproportionate to his offense, the defendant should compare his sentence to the punishments for more serious offenses within California and also to the punishments for the same offense in other jurisdictions or the court may perceive the failure to address these points as a concession that the defendant’s sentence withstands a constitutional challenge on these grounds. People v. Retanan, 154 Cal. App. 4th 1219 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2007).

A sentence of life without parole does not automatically raise an inference of gross disproportionality. SeePeople v. Murray, 203 Cal. App. 4th 277 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2012). 

The Supreme Court of California has never held that a sentence longer than a human lifespan is inherently cruel and unusual. People v. Retanan, 154 Cal. App. 4th 1219 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2007); seePeople v. Leon, 181 Cal. App. 4th 452, 469 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2010).

Leading Court Discussions of Graham and Miller 

People v. Caballero, 55 Cal. 4th 262, 266, 282 P.3d 291(August 16, 2012) (Graham and Miller applies to attempt murder in this case and the reason is explained in detail in concurrence; Graham also applies to sentence equivalent to LWOP so sentence of life with a parole eligibility date that falls outside the juvenile offender's natural life expectancy, e.g. 110 years in this case, also violates Graham)  

People v. Gutierrez, 58 Cal. 4th 1354, 1360, 324 P.3d 245 (May 5, 2014) (Presumption in favor of LWOP is unconstitutional; A trial court must consider five categories of factors before imposing LWOP to juveniles; mentioned Miller’s admonition of the limited utility of transfer hearing in concurrence.) 

Severe Sentences 

  • People v. Leon, 181 Cal. App. 4th 452 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2010) -- A sentence of 145 years to life (later reduced to 105 years to life) was not grossly disproportionate to the defendant’s homicide offenses.