The Pennsylvania Law Weekly
July 10, 2012
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole imposed upon a juvenile violates the Eighth Amendment ban against "cruel and unusual punishment."
The decision, however, does not outlaw life sentences for juveniles. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania and across the country can still pursue life sentences for juvenile killers. The court ruled that state lawmakers cannot force a judge to impose a life sentence on a juvenile.
Mandatory sentences prevent judges from exercising discretion. "It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.
"We therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders," Kagan wrote. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor agreed.
The two cases before the Supreme Court were Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647, and Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646.
Kuntrell Jackson is an Arkansas man who was 14 when he and two older co-defendants tried to rob a video store in 1999. One of Jackson's co-defendants shot and killed the store clerk.
Evan Miller is an Alabama prisoner who, in 2003, was 14 when he and an older youth beat a 52-year-old neighbor and set fire to his home after an evening of drinking and smoking marijuana. The neighbor died as a result of the attack.
During the 1960s and 1970s, youthful offenders began to be afforded the same rights and protections as their adult counterparts. However, the way that juvenile offenders were adjudicated and punished remained quite different from adults.
During the mid-1980s and early 1990s, as the crack epidemic gained national attention and gang activity was on the rise, juvenile homicide rates soared. As a result, many states changed their laws to permit the charging and sentencing of violent juvenile offenders in the same way that states pursue violent adult offenders.
In 1995, Pennsylvania's newly elected governor, Tom Ridge, called for a special legislative session on crime. Pennsylvania fell in line with many other states as Ridge convinced the legislature to overhaul the juvenile justice system with the mantra "adult time for adult crime."
As a result, a fundamental change in the law made it easier to charge juveniles as adults. In fact, certain violent offenses require prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. 6302. A conviction of first- or second-degree murder in Pennsylvania means a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Pennsylvania has placed more than 450 people in prison for life for killings committed as juveniles — the most in the nation.
How did we get to the point where punishment once thought appropriate is now unconstitutional?
Forty-five years ago the Supreme Court decided that the Eighth Amendment ban against "cruel and unusual punishment" could be established by showing a national consensus against a heretofore lawful form of punishment.
In 1988, the court outlawed the execution of juveniles under the age of 16. Fourteen years passed before the court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242 (2002), that executing the mentally retarded was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Atkins launched a series of decisions that relied on evolving standards of decency as evidenced by a national consensus against excessive sentencing, particularly as related to juveniles.
In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the execution of juveniles. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005), the court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute any person who was convicted of first-degree murder while under the age of 18.
In support of a "national consensus" against juvenile executions, the court noted the decreasing frequency with which states were sentencing juveniles to death. At the time of the decision, 20 states had laws permitting the death penalty for juveniles, but only a handful of states had executed prisoners for crimes committed as juveniles.
Furthermore, in the 15 years prior to the Roper decision, five states had abolished the death penalty for juveniles.
The court used a similar analysis in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010), decided in 2010. In Graham, the court banned life sentences for juveniles for nonhomicide offenses.
The court explained that the primary criterion for determining whether a particular punishment violates society's evolving standards of decency is objective evidence of a national consensus as expressed by legislative enactments and jury practices.
Gauging the acceptance or rejection of a particular criminal punishment requires an examination of both the work of the various legislatures and actual sentencing practices in courtrooms across the country.
In Jackson and Miller, Kagan argued that 85 percent of the juvenile LWOP sentences come from jurisdictions where the sentence was mandatory. Therefore, although the respective state legislatures had enacted the law, the sentences did not reflect the judgment of judges or juries who were bound by the law.
In Chief Justice John G. Roberts' dissenting opinion, he argued that many states had done just as Governor Ridge had in 1995 — adopt a "lock'em up" approach to juvenile crime. In fact, 28 states had imposed life sentences on juvenile offenders and about 2,500 offenders are serving life sentences for offenses committed as juveniles. Roberts argued the presence of a national consensus in favor of life sentences for juveniles.
How will these decisions affect Pennsylvania inmates?
There is uncertainty about the impact the decision will have on all of the approximately 450 inmates serving life in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers and criminal-justice practitioners will have to sort through the options.
"As far as how individual cases affected by today's decision will be reviewed," Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "our office will be working closely with the courts and with the defense bar to determine those procedures."
There are several options. The governor could commute all the sentences to include a specific minimum, i.e., 25 years to life. Then each offender would be eligible for parole after serving the minimum portion of the sentence. However, commutation and parole eligibility may limit an offender's ability to present evidence of mitigation or rehabilitation.
Those with direct appeals or timely post-conviction rights could immediately raise the issue. Lawyers for Angela Marinucci, a Westmoreland County juvenile convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the Supreme Court's decision will be raised in her appeal.
Those with pending charges — Allegheny County has 11 offenders awaiting trial for murders allegedly committed as juveniles — will not face a mandatory life sentence. The general assembly will have to create a new sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.
Those who have exhausted all appellate options may have to look to the legislature to be granted a time frame to pursue sentence reconsideration. The Supreme Court did not specifically say that the decision would be applied retroactively, but fairness and equity would demand that those subject to a mandatory life sentence be given an opportunity to have their sentence reviewed. •