Last week, state legislators gathered in Harrisburg to hear testimony from those who may be affected by the Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama. The decision last month banned mandatory life without parole for juvenile killers.
"Obviously there's some urgency to us to resolve this issue," said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Supreme Court deemed mandatory sentences for juveniles "cruel and unusual," he noted, "but they don't tell us then what to do."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that petitions filed last week in Allegheny County underscored that urgency. But there are also at least 11 juveniles awaiting trial on homicide charges that might have previously netted a mandatory life sentence. The courts have yet to figure out how to deal with those cases, but many have said the final answer will have to come not from the courts, but from the legislature.
"The Legislature's dealing with this problem cannot be avoided, nor delayed," former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernest D. Preate testified Thursday, reported the Post-Gazette. He noted that if the Legislature is sluggish, it may inadvertently violate the right to a speedy trial for juveniles awaiting trial or sentencing for homicide charges.
"The need for immediate and forthwith action by the Legislature becomes obvious. ... Huge gaps would exist in our statute on sentencing of juveniles" convicted of first- or second-degree murder, he said.
The high court's decision, while it did not universally ban life sentences for juveniles, mandated that judges consider a number of factors, including the defendant's background, blameworthiness, amenability to rehabilitation and maturity before giving the penalty.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, testified at Thursday's hearing and suggested that the state create a "bifurcated process" with a hearing separate from the trial to consider these factors, reported the Post-Gazette.
Lourdes Rosado, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, testified at the hearing that the state should create an entirely new sentencing scheme for those who committed their crimes under age 18 that is less punitive, with no juvenile defendant receiving more than 40 years in prison, reported the Post-Gazette. Currently, the mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder is life without parole.
"Juveniles convicted of murder are different from others sentenced to life terms because they are not fully formed adults at the time of the killing," she said. "In the same way that we treat children differently in many other areas of the law because they are still developing, sentencing policy should allow for the possibility of rehabilitation."
To read more: http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/12198/1246907-454.stm?cmpid=newspanel5