Drawing the Line at 18 Years Old
Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation
A California court rejected a petition that argued that the California Penal Code violates equal protection because it distinguishes between those who are younger than 18 years old at the time of their offense and those who are younger than 25 at the time of their offense, even though all such individuals were, the petition argued, “similarly situated by virtue of their still developing brains.”
The petition was brought in 2019 by Eugene Jones, who is now serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in California for crimes — first degree murder, second degree burglary, and second degree robbery — that he committed when he was 19 years old. After more than 20 years in prison, Jones petitioned the Contra Costa County Superior Court for a recall of his sentence.
Jones’ equal protection claim roots in the fact that the California Penal Code allows those who were younger than 18 years old at the time of their offense to petition for recall and resentencing but does not allow those who were 18 to 25 years old at the time of their offense to do so.
Two sections of the California Penal Code relate to Jones’s initial petition and the court’s opinion. Section 1170 allows defendants to petition for recall and resentencing if they were under 18 when they committed the offense and have been incarcerated for at least 15 years. Section 3051 and its recent amendments makes offenders who were younger than 25 years old at the time of their offenses eligible for parole, excluding those who were sentenced to LWOP for offenses committed when they were between 18 and 25 years old. Jones’s initial petition argued that section 1170 violates equal protection by excluding young adults ages 18 to 25.
To make out a successful equal protection challenge, Jones had to show that he was similarly situated to those protected by section 1170 and that there was no rational basis for excluding him. Jones’ filing included neuroscientific research showing that young adult brains are not fully developed until at least age 25. Based on that research, Jones, who was 19 at the time of the offense, argued that when he committed the offenses, he was similarly situated to those younger than 18. From this, Jones argued that the current statue violates equal protection “because the characteristics of youth are not crime-specific or sentence-specific but dependent on brain development.”
The state briefly responded to Jones’s argument, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama (2012) (which prohibited mandatory LWOP sentences for those who committed an offense, including murder, when younger than 18 years old) to say that it is rational for the law to distinguish between adults and juveniles, and that it is rational for the line between adults and juveniles to be drawn at age 18. The state did not address the neuroscience behind Jones’s argument.
In his response, Jones acknowledged that Miller draws the line at 18 years of age, but he argued that neuroscience shows that the line established in Miller needs to be reevaluated. Jones stated, “drawing a line without a rationale does not satisfy rational basis.”
Denied, but Given Hope
Jones’s petition was denied. The court’s opinion relied on Miller, saying that the United States Supreme Court had found that children and adults are different, so young adults and juveniles serving LWOP are not similarly situated. The court stated:
By drawing the line at a defendant’s eighteenth birthday, the Legislature has chosen to target the youngest, and presumably most deserving, of the group of youthful offenders whose brains were still developing and whose judgment had not yet matured. While young adults share many of the attributes of youth, they are by definition further along in the process of maturation, and the law need not be blind to the difference.
The opinion also noted that there is rational basis for a line to be drawn at 18, even if the 18-to-25 age group was found to be similarly situated to juveniles under 18. Citing Miller, Roper v. Simmons (2004), and Graham v. Florida (2009), the court observed that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that this line was not drawn solely based on science.
Although Jones’ petition was denied, two judges wrote a concurring opinion that gave hope for future appeals. The concurrence agreed that section 1170 does not apply to Jones, but suggested that section 3051 might, since it applies to all young adults except those sentenced to LWOP. The concurrence stated:
A person who committed an offense between 18 and 25 years of age serving a sentence permitting parole and a person who committed an offense at the same age serving an LWOP sentence are similarly situated for the purpose of determining whether they have outgrown the youthful impulses that led to the commission of their offenses. The presumptive fact that the LWOP sentence was based on a more serious offense provides no rational basis for the distinction because the statute is not designed to determine the degree of appropriate punishment but to determine whether the individual has outgrown his or her criminality.
On this basis, the concurring opinion noted that there may not be a rational basis to exclude 19-year-olds such as Jones from parole eligibility, suggesting that a future equal protection challenge to section 3051 could be successful. The concurring judges also urged the California state legislature to examine this issue with the statute more closely.
Where Does Jones Go From Here?
In January 2020, Jones filed a second equal protection challenge to section 3051. But even though two judges suggested it may succeed, Jones’ petition for writ of habeas corpus was eventually denied without prejudice by the appellate court. Although the case is currently considered complete, Jones plans to file the writ of habeas corpus in superior court soon. As it stands now, the statute explicitly excludes young adults serving LWOP, so further change may depend on legislative action.
Neuroscience can have an impact on this legislation, as well as in the courts. In amending section 3051, legislators cited evidence from neuroscience research to extend its reach to include more juveniles and young adults. As neuroscientists learn more about the emerging adult brain, this knowledge may be harnessed by advocates to further extend the statute to those like Jones, whom it is now interpreted to exclude.
Key words: emerging adult, criminal sentencing, Florida, Miller v. Alabama, neuroscience in the courts, LWOP
Citation: In re Jones, 42 Cal. App. 5th 477 (2019)