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Hope for those facing hopeless prison sentences

In a win for USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, a juvenile offender serving life is released from jail

The first juvenile offender resentenced under the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act was released from prison this week thanks to the work of law students with the Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) at the USC Gould School of Law.

Edel Gonzalez, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed at age 16, was represented by the PCJP and Irell and Manella. Human Rights Watch consulted on the case.

Scott Mills, a second-year USC law student, represented Gonzalez under the direction of PCJP attorneys.

It was extremely fulfilling to be part of this case.

Scott Mills

“It was extremely fulfilling to be part of this case. Edel truly deserves all of the credit because he put in the hard work to change his life,” Mills said. “I have learned so much working with my professors from both a legal and personal standpoint.”



Life without parole

Gonzalez, who turns 40 next month, served 24 years in prison for being present at a murder committed by adults. He was the youngest person in Orange County to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

After taking into account Gonzalez’s pristine prison record and the passage of two new laws, California parole officials and Gov. Jerry Brown determined that Gonzalez was suitable for parole.

“A life without parole sentence means that that there is no opportunity to ever be released from prison,” said Professor Heidi Rummel, co-director of PCJP. “But a growing body of high-court decisions and scientific opinion weigh against the use of the sentence for people who are under 18 at the time of their crimes.”

The California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, signed into law by Brown, allows juvenile offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole to petition the court for resentencing after serving 15 years.

In December 2013, a judge gave Gonzalez a new sentence with the possibility of parole. Once eligible for parole, Gonzalez benefited from Senate Bill 260, which went into effect in 2014, requiring parole commissioners to consider the diminished culpability of youth at the time of their crime. The legislation was co-sponsored by PCJP, with USC Gould professors and students helping to draft the bill and testifying in Sacramento to urge its passage.

Edel Gonzalez was the first person whose case was heard under the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, and the first person to be released.

Heidi Rummel

“The legislation has created hope among many who faced hopeless sentences — Edel’s release makes it tangible for the many youth offenders serving life,” Rummel said. “Edel Gonzalez was the first person whose case was heard under the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, and the first person to be released.”

Cruel and unusual punishment

For the past several years, courts have started differentiating between youths and adults. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole was cruel and unusual.

The California Supreme Court modified California’s sentencing law, holding in People v. Gutierrez that sentencing courts must take into consideration a host of factors relevant to the distinct status of juveniles. Among other factors, the courts recognized that adolsecent brains are still developing in ways relevant to culpability.

Gonzalez was released this week to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and will be deported to Mexico. Gonzalez and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a baby, and he did not have U.S. citizenship. He plans to work for a church and help mentor at-risk youth to avoid the allure of gangs and negative influences.

“It is totally in keeping with Edel’s character that he has chosen to spend his life giving back to the community,” Rummel said.

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