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Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 2, California.

The PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Robert Owen WILLIAMS, Defendant and Appellant.

Cr. 39451.

Decided: September 14, 1981

Quin Denvir, State Public Defender, and Richard Lennon, Deputy State Public Defender, for defendant and appellant. George Deukmejian, Atty. Gen., Robert H. Philibosian, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., S. Clark Moore, Asst. Atty. Gen., Edward T. Fogel, Jr. and Donald E. De Nicola, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

This appeal presents a straightforward and novel question: When committing a youthful defendant to the California Youth Authority pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 1731.5, may the adult court intentionally set the maximum period of his potential confinement at the upper term while expressly acknowledging that if it had sentenced him to state prison, it would have selected the middle term? As we shall explain, when the Determinate Sentence Law and its underpinnings are rationally viewed, we perceive no impediment to the sentencing court doing so.

Robert Owen Williams was convicted in a jury trial of receiving stolen property. When the court initially committed him to the California Youth Authority, it fixed the maximum period of potential confinement at the upper three year term without articulating any factors in aggravation based upon a view apparently then held by the Los Angeles Superior Court and memorialized in what is referred to as the “Keene opinion.”1

During the pendency of this appeal, the law was definitively clarified in People v. Jones (1980) 111 Cal.App.3d 597, 169 Cal.Rptr. 28 which held, contrary to the “Keene opinion,” that a Youth Authority commitment from an adult court for the “upper term” requires an articulation of a reason. Because of this decision, the trial court favorably entertained an unopposed motion by appellant to reconsider the potential length of his commitment. At the conclusion of that hearing it again selected the maximum period of appellant's potential confinement as the upper three year term, stated its reasons for its “sentence choice” and expressly determined that the factors in aggravation outweighed those in mitigation. At this point the court unquestionably followed both the letter and spirit of the Determinate Sentence Law statutes, court rules, and decisional law.

Defense counsel nevertheless continued to press for a commitment of a lesser potential duration. In response the court commented that if it had elected to sentence appellant to state prison, it would have done so only for the middle two year term but that it believed it could legitimately take into consideration the place of confinement when such sentence was not imposed. Not to do so, it opined, would be “incredible.” In the court's words, “I am not sentencing anyone in a vacuum. I am of the opinion that the factors in aggravation in this case when measured against a commitment to the Youth Authority would merit the upper term, but are not quite so bad as to merit the upper term in a State Prison sentence because that is hard time.” The court also expressly mentioned the “rehabilitative assistance that is available” in the Youth Authority as one of the factors leading to its disposition.

Appellant claims that California Rules of Court, rule 453, requires us to hold if a court should conclude that two years would be an appropriate punishment if it were actually going to sentence a youthful offender to state prison, the maximum period of his potential confinement at the Youth Authority must automatically be the same. Rule 453, subdivision (a), provides:

“When a defendant is convicted of a crime for which sentence could be imposed under section 1170 and the court orders that he be committed:

“(a) To the California Youth Authority pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 1731.5, the order of commitment shall specify the term of imprisonment to which the defendant would have been sentenced. The term shall be determined as provided by sections 1170 and 1170.1 and these rules, as though a sentence of imprisonment were to be imposed.”

Were we required to adhere to the absolute letter of this rule, appellant's theory would appear persuasive, since it seems to require an automatically equal “term” for Youth Authority commitment. However, as indicated in a related but different context, “(w)e are unwilling to reach ridiculous results by slavish adherence to ritualistic form ” (People v. Blessing (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 835, 839, 155 Cal.Rptr. 780.) The Advisory Committee Comment to rule 453 is illuminating and in pertinent part provides: “Youth Authority commitments cannot exceed the maximum possible incarceration in an adult institution for the same crime. (People v. Olivas (1976) 17 Cal.3d 236 (131 Cal.Rptr. 55, 551 P.2d 375))” (Emphasis added.)

It thus appears that the Judicial Council adopted rule 453 in reliance upon what it perceived to be the “equal protection” principles applied in People v. Olivas (1976) 17 Cal.3d 326, 329, 131 Cal.Rptr. 55, 551 P.2d 375, which had held “that youthful misdemeanants may not constitutionally be held subject to the control of the Youth Authority for any period of time in excess of the maximum jail term which might be imposed.” (Emphasis added.) In the instant case, appellant was committed for a potential period of confinement which did not “exceed the maximum possible incarceration in an adult institution for the same crime.” (Advisory Committee Comment, supra; emphasis added.) In the words of Olivas, supra, appellant was not committed “for any period of time in excess of the maximum term which might be imposed.” (Emphasis added.)

“While the purpose of the determinate sentence law may be punitive (Pen.Code, s 1170, subd. (a)(1), two of its ‘general objectives' are '(p)rotecting society’ and ‘(p)reventing the defendant from committing new crimes by isolating him for a period of incarceration.’ (Rule 410(a), (3).)” (People v. Flores (1981) 115 Cal.App.3d 924, 928, 171 Cal.Rptr. 777.) Another “general objective” is “(e)ncouraging the defendant to lead a law abiding life in the future and deterring him from future offenses.” (Rule 410, subd. (c).)

In the exercise of its sound discretion, the committing court here determined that the maximum three year period of potential confinement was necessary to fulfill each of these goals. Such specification, of course, will not determine the period of appellant's actual confinement, as would a sentence to state prison. Commitments to the Youth Authority are of an indeterminate nature and the Youthful Offender Parole Board is authorized to release from physical confinement any person whenever it deems that release is appropriate. (People v. Franklin (1980) 102 Cal.App.3d 250, 253, 162 Cal.Rptr. 284; Welf. & Inst.Code, s 1766.)

In addition, it cannot seriously be questioned that the primary goal of a Youth Authority commitment, as opposed to a state prison sentence, is to rehabilitate troubled youth by supplying them with needed educational and vocational guidance for a period of time necessary to achieve this salutary goal. That is to say, the Legislature has not yet jettisoned the theory that youthful persons convicted in adult court may appropriately be made the subjects of “reformatory and educational discipline.” (Welf. & Inst.Code, s 1731.5, subd. (d).) We, therefore, agree with the committing court that judgments need not be rendered “in a vacuum,” and it is appropriate to consider the nature of the receiving institution in selecting the maximum period of potential confinement.

The order here under review is affirmed.


1.  This is presumably a reference to the Honorable William B. Keene, former presiding judge of the criminal department.

ROTH, Presiding Justice.

COMPTON and BEACH, JJ., concur.