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Court ruling throws juvenile life sentences into flux

By   /   July 12, 2012  /   No Comments

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — The U.S. Supreme Court decision that nullified the mandatory life sentences Pennsylvania issues juveniles for committing murder leaves two major issues open for debate.

The Legislature must determine if the decision applies retroactively and whether the state should draft new sentencing guidelines for juveniles.

Miller v. Alabama, decided June 25, said a mandatory sentence without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee listened Thursday to testimony on the court decision from around 20 people, including lawyers, victims’ rights advocates, and juvenile inmate advocates.

“We have to look at the case law and see what the court meant,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks, the only elected official conducting the hearing.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf

“Did they mean it to be retroactive, or did they not mean it to be retroactive? Did they mean the courts to make that decision, or the Legislature should make that decision?”

He said he wasn’t sure when the committee would address potential legislation, but testimony will be distributed when the state Senate reconvenes in September.

In Pennsylvania, those convicted of first- or second-degree murder when they are younger than 18 serve a mandatory life sentence. Some research says that’s why the state ranks as the highest in the nation for incarcerating juveniles without parole.

As of late June, Pennsylvania prisons housed around 380 inmates sentenced to life without parole who were committed under the age of 18, according to Department of Corrections data. That’s roughly 16 percent of the nearly 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide, according to figures in the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Of Pennsylvania’s lifers, 41 were sentenced between 2005 and 2010, meaning they’re no older than 25.

The DOC spends an average of $34,000 a year per inmate, meaning someone who serves a life sentence that ends after 50 years costs taxpayers $1.7 million.

And, because of Pennsylvania’s mandatory statute, dozens more youths may be awaiting a potential life sentence without parole. That process can take up to two years, according to testimony.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director for state policy organization Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said swift action is necessary to address past, present and future cases.

“Any Miller solution constructed for Pennsylvania will need to provide both a process for the review of the offenders and their offense as well as sentencing options that provide courts with discretion required to impose proportionate sanctions for juvenile offenders,” he said.

Juveniles who commit heinous crimes still could receive a life sentence, because the U.S. Supreme Court decision only applies to mandatory life sentences.

Lourdes Rosado


Lourdes Rosado, associate director with Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, said the state should change the sentencing guidelines for juveniles convicted of first-and second-degree murder, so they are more age-appropriate.

“Any new sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted for murder must be discretionary,” she said.

Barbara Zemlock

Barbara Zemlock, president for industry coalition Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, added that Pennsylvania’s new juvenile murder sentences should address the seriousness of the crime as well as the developmental differences between youths and adults.

New legislation, she said, should place “emphasis on rehabilitation, as opposed to focusing solely on retribution.”

Craig Stedman


But what happens to the existing inmates is unclear. Though becoming eligible for parole doesn’t guarantee an inmate would go free, the concept may be troubling to a victim’s families, said Craig Stedman, district attorney for Lancaster County representing the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

After all, he said, it doesn’t matter to the victim whether the killer was 14 or 40.

“People, particularly surviving members of a murder victim’s family, should be able to expect some certainty in the sentence of the killer,” he said. “The only comfort some survivors have in these cases is the fact the judge told them the killer of their loved one would never go free and/or kill again.”