Prison Release Marks New California Attitude About Life Terms for Youths

Monday, March 30, 2015
Edel Gonzalez (photo: Courtesy of University of Southern California)

Edel Gonzalez didn’t have much time to experience his newfound freedom in California after becoming the first beneficiary of the state’s rethinking of life terms for youths.

The 39-year-old former gang member, sentenced to life in prison at 16, was the first inmate to be resentenced under new legislative guidelines inspired by the U.S.Supreme Court’s  Miller v. Alabama ruling in 2012 and the California Supreme Court’s People v. Gutierrez decision in 2014.

Gonzalez, who came to this country illegally with his family when he was 3, was released on parole and promptly deported to Tijuana, Mexico, upon his release last week. The Los Angeles Times said he will work as a church janitor and in gang intervention.

Both court decisions sped up a slow evolution in the way the U.S. treats minors who have committed crimes. Although Gonzalez was the youngest person ever given a life-without-parole sentence in Orange County, California and the U.S. already had the harshest youth offender laws in the world at the time.

The United States was the only country in the world (pdf), as of 2013, that allowed minors to be incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole, according to the Sentencing Project. Around 2,500 were serving such sentences. The U.S. and Somalia are the only countries not to ratify the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, among its provisions, prohibits life without parole for children.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 marked the most distinctive turning point in this country’s attitude about locking up kids forever. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority in Miller wrote,

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

Gonzalez was helped by two new California laws. Senate Bill 9, passed in 2012, allows inmates who were sentenced to life in prison but were under 18 at the time of their offense to petition for resentencing. Senate Bill 260 says a youthful offender sentenced to life can seek parole after serving 25 years and the “diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults” should be given “great weight.”  

Gonzalez was convicted of murder in 1993 after a carjacking in Orange County went awry and one of his two companions shot the 49-year-old teacher’s aide in the head. They wanted the car to commit a drive-by shooting. Gonzalez was not the shooter, but the law states that any participants in a robbery that ends in death are liable for a murder charge.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals resentenced Gonzalez in December 2013 to 25 years to life and given credit for time served. He was approved for parole last October.

In prison, Gonzalez kicked his addictions, got religion, stayed out of trouble and, according to his attorneys, “availed himself of almost every educational and rehabilitation program offered.” The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) gave Gonzalez its lowest (best) risk assessment score for recidivism.

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

Former Gang Member Freed After Resentencing for Crime Committed When He Was 16 (by Kelly Puente, Orange County Register)

California Inmate First to Be Released Under New Youth Offender Laws (by Philip J. Victor, Aljazeera)

California: First Release Under New Child Offender Laws (Human Rights Watch)

California Inmate's Parole Reflects Rethinking of Life Terms for Youths (by Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times)

First Resentencing Under SB 9 for Pro Bono Client (Irell & Manella LLP)

Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America (by Ashley Nellis, The Sentencing Project) (pdf)

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