The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struggled Wednesday over the issue of juvenile murderers serving mandatory life terms, given a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that their sentences are unconstitutional, reported the Allentown Morning Call.
Under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to a mandatory life term for murder, as nearly 500 Pennsylvania prisoners were. The decision didn't bar life sentences for juveniles altogether, but said they cannot be imposed without a judge or a jury weighing the facts of defendants' lives, how their age affected their actions, and their ability to rehabilitate as they grow older.
"I get a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old murderer who could now be back on the street in his mid-30s? Is that what you're asking?" Justice Seamus McCaffery asked Marsha Levick, an attorney from the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia. She argued on Qu'eed Batts' behalf a juvenile serving life.
Batts was 14 in 2006 when he gunned down 16-year-old Clarence Edwards and wounded 18-year-old Cory Hilario in a gang-ordered attack in Easton's West Ward. In July, the state's highest court asked attorneys in his case to outline alternatives given the new ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for youths, according to The Morning Call.
Under state law, murders in the first and second degree must result in a life sentence, with no other punishment possible — the exact scenario the nation's top court deemed unconstitutional for those under 18. But what each of those prisoners can now expect is a question that Pennsylvania courts, and eventually the state Legislature, will have to answer.
Northampton County First Deputy District Attorney Terence Houck, who prosecuted Batts, argued to the justices that life without parole should remain on the table.
Houck suggested two options at resentencing: a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or a life sentence with the possibility after a fixed number of years.
The federal ruling changed "one and only one thing: It has removed 'mandatory' from life in prison without parole," Houck said, reported The Morning Call.
Justice J. Michael Eakin floated one proposal not offered by either side: Leave it up to the state Board of Probation and Parole, without a judge setting a minimum.
If not, Eakin said, "How is it that we're going to say to the sentencing judge, 'You determine when there is eligibility for parole,' when all of the statutes are to the contrary?"
Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of juveniles jailed for life, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which opposes that penalty. Pennsylvania has 444 such inmates, followed by Michigan at 346 and Louisiana at 332, the Washington, D.C.-based group says.
The Juvenile Law Center puts Pennsylvania's number closer to 480, including one inmate in Graterford State Prison who has spent 59 years behind bars, reported The Morning Call.
To read more: http://www.mcall.com/news/breaking/mc-supreme-court-easton-juvenile-life-in-prison-20120912,0,245629,full.story