Friday, September 28, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Legislature tackles only part of the JLWOP problem

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
September 28, 2012

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 violates the Eighth Amendment ban against "cruel and unusual punishment."

The decision, however, did 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.

The eyes of the nation are on Pennsylvania and how the Commonwealth deals with its nation-leading 470 offenders serving life without parole for offenses committed as juveniles. There are 28 states with mandatory sentencing laws that will have to take some action to address those who may be subject to future sentencing and those already serving life sentences.

On September 12, 2012, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard expedited oral arguments in the cases of two inmates who appealed life sentences they received for murders they committed as juveniles. 

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania General Assembly took an initial step toward addressing at least part of the problem. Senate Bill 850 was amended to include language addressing sentences for juveniles convicted of first and second degree murder. The bill needs to be voted on by the full House and then returned to the Senate.

Under the amendment, judges can continue to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. The proposed legislation now provides another option. A juvenile age 15 or older convicted of first degree murder may be sentenced to a minimum of 35 years to life. For a juvenile younger than 15 the options include a minimum of 25 years to life.

Life without parole would no longer be an option for a juvenile convicted of second degree murder. A juvenile convicted of second degree murder age 15 or older shall be sentenced to a minimum of 30 years to life; under age 15 the minimum is 20 years to life.

The legislation also mandates that a sentencing judge who opts to sentence a juvenile to life without parole must make specific findings on the record that include the impact of the crime on the victim and community, the threat posed by the defendant, the degree of the juvenile defendant’s culpability as well as age, mental capacity and maturity.

The legislation has the support of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association. The legislation "represents a good balance between an appropriate punishment for juveniles convicted with murder and the Miller decision," said Greg Rowe, the legislative liaison for the association.

The legislation will resolve the sentencing conundrum for all juveniles currently awaiting homicide trials in Pennsylvania. In Allegheny County there are about 10 such juveniles.

The legislation fails to provide redress for those offenders already serving life without parole. In Pennsylvania, those offenders represent a significant number of the nation’s juvenile lifers and cannot be ignored.

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