Today, the California Supreme Court decided People v. Franklin in a way that probably had both the defendant and the state feeling unsatisfied.
The story is tragic in the same way that too many stories are: Tyris Lamar Franklin, 16 years old, was in conflict with other teenage boys, whom they referred to as the Crescent Park Gang. Shortly before the crime, the Crescents fired multiple shots into the apartment where Tyris lived with his grandmother and brothers, and attacked Tyris’ 13-year-old brother. In retaliation, Tyris shot and killed Gene, a boy who was associated with the Crescents but who had nothing to do with the attack on the little brother.
Under California law at the time, the judge had no choice: he had to sentence Tyris to 25-to-life for the murder and to a consecutive 25-to-life for the weapon enhancement. The math is easy: Tyris would come up for parole for the first time after 50 years, at the age of 66. But the judge felt very uncomfortable with this decision. His explanation of the sentence echoes not only his grief and frustration with the unnecessariness of the crime AND the punishment, but also his thinking, which was influenced by the new Supreme Court line of cases, starting with Roper v. Simmons and continuing with Graham v. Florida. These cases relied on new findings in neuroscience and developmental psychology, which suggest that juvenile brains continue developing well into their mid-20s, and that until their prefrontal cortex is fully developed, they are less capable of thinking about consequences, factoring in long-term considerations, and resisting peer pressure. Reflecting this “rediscovery of childhood” perspective, the judge said:
The sentence is the sentence that‘s prescribed by law, not one that the Court chooses. And I will impose it in this case, but first I just want to say a couple of words to both families. I see a lot of pain in this courtroom all the time. And so often it‘s because of senseless things that happen. And if there‘s a senseless case, this is a senseless case. We‘ve got two young men‘s lives destroyed. . . . We‘ve lost two young men. And for what? It‘s so senseless. I would have loved to have seen these two young men grow up to be people, to be the people they‘re supposed to be, both of them. And neither of them is going to have that opportunity. It‘s because of unspeakably stupid choices that you made, Mr. Franklin. And I just hope that something can come out of this that‘s productive. I‘m impressed with Gene[‘s] . . . family‘s dignity going through this. Their empathy for Mr. Franklin‘s family and even Mr. Franklin. And I‘m impressed with Mr. Franklin‘s family‘s understanding and empathy for [Gene]‘s family. And if we can take something from this, I would love for it to be, get the guns out of Richmond, get the violence out of Richmond, and don‘t have these young black men going after each other because we see it so much in this courthouse. And what ends up happening is we have some young men going to prison for the best years of their lives at the least, and other young men who don‘t get to grow up. And how crazy is this? How crazy. So if both families can do anything to try to make some sense and find some good out of this, work together to try to get the guns out of Richmond, get the guns out of the pockets of these young men who haven‘t got the frontal lobes yet to figure out how to deal with their issues.
Shortly after Tyris Franklin was sentenced to 25 + 25, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama. Under Miller, mandatory life-without-parole schemes for juveniles are unconstitutional. Even before the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which applied Miller retroactively, California was already searching for ways to fix these problems. One such way was through SB 260, later codified as Penal Code 3051, which provides a special “youth offender hearing” before the parole board. For someone serving a sentence like Tyris Franklin’s, that would mean a parole hearing after 25 years, in lieu of the 50 that the law provided before the amendment. Moreover, under the new law, the board is encouraged to take the person’s age when the offense was committed into account in a serious way. For evidence that the parole board takes the “rediscovery of childhood” perspective seriously, see their recent decision recommending Leslie Van Houten’s release.
The California Supreme Court found today that the “youth offender parole hearings” provided by Penal Code 3051 preempted Franklin’s argument that his sentence violated Miller, because he is already eligible for the “fix” via an earlier parole date. Nonetheless, the Court remanded the case to determine whether Franklin was able to fully present evidence as to his level of maturity, which won’t make a difference for the sentence but will make a difference twentysomething years from now on parole. It’s a bit of a “neither here nor there” decision. The state representatives would say: if the sentence is fine, and if there’s evidence in the judicial explanation that the judge was aware of youth issues, why not take that into account? And Franklin would say: if the judge clearly was unhappy with the mandatory sentence, and the mandatory sentence was unconstitutional, why not give the judge a chance to fix this at resentencing, rather than waiting twenty-five years?
Part of the discomfort with relying on the parole “fix” in this case relates to the proximity between Miller and Franklin. Even though, legally, it doesn’t matter whether the case we’re remedying with a parole hearing happened one day or fifty years before Miller, it somehow feels different. When the Supreme Court decided Montgomery, Henry Montgomery was in his late 60s, having served fifty years behind bars for a crime committed when he was a teenager. A parole hearing to release him could be held immediately. Here, by contrast, the result is that with the “fix”, which was just held to preempt the constitutional channel, Franklin has to wait more than twenty years to argue something that we know the judge felt very strongly about as recently as 2011.
Whether or not you think the result in Franklin was constitutionally permissible, the deeper questions about the parole “fix” emerge. We’re very good at ratcheting up sentences and we’ve done a masterful job at forgetting that children were children. And now that we’ve remembered the difference between youth and adults, it’s taking us a very long time to fix things using very small steps, which put a dent in ultra-severe sentences, but are still very far from undoing their destructive effects.