Wednesday, October 24, 2012

PA legislature resolves mandatory life for juveniles

Bill sits on Governor Tom Corbett's Desk

In response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama banning automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, lawmakers in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate have approved a bill with a new set of sentencing options. The bill now sits on Gov. Tom Corbett's desk.

Senate Bill 850 provides that defendants 14 years old and younger would serve at least 20 years for second-degree convictions and at least 25 years for first-degree convictions. Offenders who are 15 to 17 years old would face minimum sentences of 25 and 35 years, respectively, according to The Altoona Mirror. Life without parole is no longer a option for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder.

Judges would also have the option of imposing a life sentence for juveniles who commit murder, but based on the high court's 5-4 ruling in June, that life sentence cannot be automatic.

When the Supreme Court made its 5-to-4 ruling in late June, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said the automatic life-without-parole sentence for juveniles takes discretion out of the hands of the judge, depriving the judge of the ability to consider mitigating circumstances that juveniles can't control, such as their home life or their capacity to change, reported the Mirror.

Kagan said a state is not required to guarantee a juvenile's freedom, but "must provide some meaningful opportunity to obtain release, based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."

Opponents to the proposed legislation have said the bill needs more work and that decade-long sentences for child defendants will still amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Rep. Curtis Thomas, D.-Philadelphia, offered that challenge in the House, but he was unsuccessful, according to the Mirror.

The new legislation does not address the more than 400 offenders already serving life for offenses committed as juveniles. There right to file for review of their sentences is being considered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Douglas Berman thinks prospects for retroactivity are good. “It’s in no one’s interest to litigate this,” said the law professor at Ohio State University and author of the award-winning Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

He explained that retroactivity historically deals with the possibility of overturning convictions. So prosecutors fight hard to protect convictions they have won in the past. But Miller only talks about sentences. All convictions will stand. And judges can still hand out sentences of life without the chance of parole or even decades-long sentences.

Indeed, Berman predicts some judges will do just that. He points out that under an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting resentencing to certain juvenile lifers, some Florida judges have laid out sentences of 100 years.

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