In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole imposed upon a juvenile violated the Eighth Amendment ban against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The decision was overshadowed by the court’s controversial ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act. In Miller v. Alabama the Supreme Court did not outlaw life sentences for juveniles. Prosecutors in Ohio, Pennsylvania and across the country can still pursue life sentences for juvenile killers. The court ruled that state lawmakers cannot force judges to impose life sentences on juveniles.
Pennsylvania, where there are about 480 inmates serving life without parole for killings committed as juveniles, is trying to figure out how to proceed. Ohio has just two juvenile lifers. “Obviously there’s some urgency to us to resolve this issue,” Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Two recent appellate court cases — one before the state Supreme Court and the other a state Superior Court decision—promise to provide guidance at some point.
Both cases had been held in abeyance as the Pennsylvania courts waited on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller.
The state Supreme Court now has asked the prosecution and defense in Commonwealth vs. Batts to file supplemental briefs recommending “the appropriate remedy” and “what relief, if any” the court should consider for juvenile lifers.
In a separate decision, the Superior Court vacated two life without parole sentences in Commonwealth vs. Knox and remanded the cases to the trial court “for the limited purpose of re-sentencing.”
This week, attorneys in York County, Pennsylvania asked a judge to vacate the life without parole sentence of a 15-year-old convicted of second degree murder and schedule a new sentencing hearing.
“It’s a mess,” Assistant district attorney Lishani Sunday told the York Daily Record. She said the U.S. Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania appellate courts and the state legislature have failed to provide district attorneys with any guidance on what sentence former juvenile lifers should receive.
While leaving the possibility of life in prison without parole on the table, the high court mandated that judges consider a number of factors, including the defendant’s background, blameworthiness, amenability to rehabilitation and maturity, before imposing sentence.
With more “juvenile” lifers than any other state, the Pennsylvania legislature recently conducted a hearing to examine the options for juvenile lifers. Those testifying offered a number of options.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, suggested that the legislature create a bifurcated sentencing hearing. “A judge or jury could consider all relevant factors before deciding a sentence from choices defined in the statute.” He also suggested excluding life without parole for offenders under a certain age.
Lourdes Rosado, an attorney from the Juvenile Law Center, suggested the legislature craft a sentencing statute that would cap juvenile sentences for first degree murder at 40 years and make an offender eligible for parole after 20 years. For second degree murder she supports a cap at 20 years and parole eligibility at 10 years. Currently second degree murder is punishable by life in prison without parole.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, supported by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, suggested that juveniles convicted of first or second degree murder not be eligible for parole until age 60. Anything less would be untenable.
“Any mandatory minimum for first or second degree murder ... set at 20 years or lower could lead to [an] absurd result,” testified Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman. He was alluding to a murder conviction for a juvenile resulting in less time than a conviction for possessing child pornography or shooting at, but not killing, a police officer.
Finally, the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers suggested that no juvenile under the age of 15 should be subject to life in prison without parole. For those 15-years-old or older, “A term of years such as that imposed for third degree murder ... should be included in the statutory scheme.”
Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney for Lawrence County. You can read his blog, The Cautionary Instruction, every Friday at www.post-gazette.com. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino.