Tuesday, March 5, 2024

PEOPLE V. HARDIN 3/4/2024: In a 5-2 Decision California Supreme Court UPHELD State Law that Young Adults (18-25) CAN BE sentenced to Life Without possibility of Parole (LWOP)

PEOPLE v. HARDIN   (2024) S277487   03/04/2024
Second Appellate District, Division Seven  B315434
Los Angeles County Superior Court A893110

Full opinion can be seen (this March 2024) at:

BACKGROUND on this monumental Youth Offender case:

People v. Hardin 2022 California Courts of Appeal (COA) decision:

The case involved Tony Hardin, sentenced to life without parole in 1990 for robbing and murdering a neighbor, Norma Barber, 66, in her apartment in Rowland Heights (Los Angeles County) a year earlier, when he was 25. Hardin stole her jewelry and car keys before strangling her and said later that he had been “desperate for money to buy drugs.” His prosecutors unsuccessfully sought a death sentence for Hardin, who is now 60.

A state appeals court ruled in 2022 that Hardin was entitled to a youthful-offender parole hearing. Permanently denying release in such a case, Justice Dennis Perluss wrote, prevents the state and its parole board from considering research that shows “the human brain — especially those portions responsible for judgment and decision-making — continues to develop into a person’s mid-20s.”

In that 2022 case, the COA had ruled that a provision in California law that denied certain young adults sentenced to life without parole the opportunity for a youth offender parole hearing was unconstitutional. The court found the law did not have a rational basis for excluding this group from consideration for parole and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause.

* **Holding:** The Second Appellate District held that Penal Code section 3051, subdivision (h), violates the Equal Protection Clause because it does not provide a rational basis for treating young adult offenders who committed a special-circumstance murder and were sentenced to life without parole differently from other young adult offenders who committed different serious or violent crimes and received parole-eligible indeterminate life terms, including those that could be the functional equivalent of a life without parole sentence.

* **Reasoning:** The court reasoned that the government's asserted justification for the distinction, namely that young adult offenders who commit special-circumstance murder are more likely to be dangerous than other young adult offenders, is not supported by the evidence. The court found that there is no significant difference in the recidivism rates of young adult offenders who commit special-circumstance murder and other young adult offenders who commit serious or violent crimes.

Other state appeals courts had rejected similar claims and because there were different outcomes in the other state appeals court; the state’s high court (California Supreme Court) agreed to take up Hardin’s case and resolve the issue.

The California Supreme Court's 2024 Decision was published on Monday 3/4/2024

See below for a quick summary. The Full Opinion is in the Above link.

California Supreme Court reverses the Courts of Appeal and upholds life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for adults under 26 years of age.

“This conclusion does not turn on this court’s judgments about what constitutes sound sentencing policy,” Justice Leondra Kruger wrote in the majority opinion. “It turns on the deference we owe to the policy choices made through the democratic process by the people of California and their elected representatives.”   

She was joined by Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero and Justices Carol Corrigan, Martin Jenkins and Joshua Groban.


California’s youth offender parole statute offers opportunities for early release to certain persons who are incarcerated for crimes they committed at a young age. (Pen. Code, §§ 3051, 4801.) When it was first enacted in 2013, the statute applied only to individuals who committed their crimes before the age of 18; the purpose of the statute was to align California law with then-recent court decisions identifying Eighth Amendment limitations on life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. In more recent years, however, the Legislature has expanded the statute to include certain young adult offenders as well. Under the current version of the statute, most persons incarcerated for a crime committed between ages 18 and 25 are entitled to a parole hearing during the 15th, 20th, or 25th year of their incarceration. (Pen. Code, § 3051, subd. (b).) But not all youthful offenders are eligible for parole hearings. The statute excludes, among others, offenders who are serving sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a crime committed after the age of 18. (Id., subd. (h).)

Justices Goodwin Liu and Kelli Evans dissented. Noting that more than three-quarters of the 3,000 prisoners now serving life-without-parole sentences in California are either Black or Hispanic, Evans said the 2013 state law that the court upheld “embodies racial bias that has plagued our criminal and juvenile justice systems since their inception.” She urged the Legislature to change the law.

Justices Goodwin Liu states:

Today’s opinion rationalizes the exclusion by imputing to the Legislature a purpose — calibrating “culpability and the appropriate level of punishment for certain very serious crimes” (maj. opn., ante, at p. 26) — that is nowhere stated in the statute or its legislative history. It then posits that special- circumstance murder is generally distinguishable from simple first degree murder in terms of culpability (id. at pp. 33–42) despite strong evidence to the contrary. According to the court, nothing more is required under rational basis review. Although I agree that rational basis review applies to Hardin’s claim, I disagree with how the court has applied it here.

Attorney Greg Wolff, who filed arguments on behalf of Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups, said the ruling was “disappointing but not surprising. Persons sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were young deserve a chance to prove they’ve changed.”

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said a lower-court ruling that would have allowed parole hearings “unconstitutionally amended state law to give some of California’s worst murderers a chance for release. In today’s decision, the California Supreme Court confirmed that such power belongs to the people, not the courts.”

Editor's Note: 

Justices Goodwin Liu and Kelli Evans dissented with over 60 pages of the 118-page opinion, with what I considered to be a well-reasoned opinion.

Supreme Court dissenting opinions in cases like these can sometimes become the majority view later on because they address evolving societal values and legal interpretations. These dissents may reflect a more progressive perspective on the Constitution or social justice issues. Over time, public opinion can shift, and new justices appointed to the court may hold different legal philosophies. If the arguments in the dissent are well-reasoned and persuasive, they can influence future cases and eventually lead to a reversal of the original decision.