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Racial Justice and Social Equity

No parole for youth with life sentences, California Supreme Court rules

File photo of incarerated men stand outside the classroom of the Peer Literacy Mentor Program at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Friday, March 17, 2023.
Eric Risberg
File photo of incarerated men stand outside the classroom of the Peer Literacy Mentor Program at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., Friday, March 17, 2023.

The California Supreme Court today upheld limits on when young people convicted of serious crimes are eligible for parole hearings, finding that a man convicted of a 1989 slaying cannot seek parole under recent policy changes that were meant to give more inmates a shot at leaving prison.

The statute allows people between the ages of 18 and 25 convicted of certain crimes to seek parole at their 15th, 20th and 25th years of incarceration, except for people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after the age of 18.

That was the case for Tony Hardin of Los Angeles, who was 25 when he robbed and killed an elderly neighbor 35 years ago.


A jury convicted him of first-degree murder, and agreed with prosecutors that the crime was a “special circumstance” — in this case, the murder was committed during a robbery. The jury declined a death penalty verdict and sentenced Hardin to life without parole.

In 2013, the Legislature passed a bill that required parole hearings for people convicted as juveniles by their 25th year of incarceration, but made an exception for those sentenced to life without parole. In 2017, the Legislature expanded that law to include everyone convicted of an offense committed when they were 25 or younger, but once again left in the exception for people in prison for life without parole.

Hardin appealed his conviction in 2021, arguing that barring inmates like him from parole violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He argued that parole would be possible for a 17-year-old who committed a special circumstance murder, or someone his age who was convicted of the first-degree murder without a special-circumstance finding.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge rebuffed his appeal, but in 2022, Hardin found a sympathetic ear with a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals’ Second Appellate District, which ruled that he should be eligible for an evidentiary hearing in which he could introduce mitigating evidence related to his age at the time of the crime.

These hearings, called Franklin hearings, can include evidence of a person’s state of mind when they committed a crime, the instability of their environment growing up and their ability to understand their actions at the time of the crime. They are usually a precondition of a formal parole hearing.


“The disparate treatment of offenders like Hardin cannot stand,” the appeals court ruled.

The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court ruling, upheld that law and denied Hardin’s challenge in a 6-1 ruling. The high court ruled that the Legislature’s intent should be followed.

“Under California law, special circumstance murder is a uniquely serious offense, punishable only by death or life without possibility of parole,” Associate Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger wrote in the ruling.

“When it was considering whether to expand the youth offender parole system to include not only juvenile offenders but also certain young adults, the Legislature could rationally balance the seriousness of the offender’s crimes against the capacity of all young adults for growth, and determine that young adults who have committed certain very serious crimes should remain ineligible for release from prison.”

In a dissent, Associate Supreme Court Justice Kelli Evans wrote that excluding people like Hardin, who is Black, from parole hearings is indeed a violation of the equal protection clause.

“The (life without parole) exclusion offends the Legislature’s only express and articulated purpose of the youth offender parole eligibility scheme and lacks rationality,” Evans wrote. “The exclusion bears the taint of racial prejudice and perpetuates extreme racial disparities plaguing our juvenile and criminal justice systems. Thus, I conclude it fails any mode of rational basis review.”