Thursday, April 4, 2024

Creators: Life Without Parole Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Matthew T. Mangino
April 3, 2024

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court will consider whether some life without parole sentences for those convicted of murder violate the state and federal Constitutions. Pennsylvania has about 5,100 people serving life without parole.

In Pennsylvania, over 1,100 of those serving life without parole were sentenced for "felony" murder. Pennsylvania is one of only two states that continues to impose a mandatory life-in-prison sentence for "felony" murder.

If an accused participates in a felony that leads to death even if that person did not cause the death, the accused can be charged and convicted of second-degree murder, also known as felony murder. Life without parole is currently the state's only possible sentence for those convicted of second-degree murder.

Life without parole (LWOP) is a growing concern in this country. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of LWOP sentences has more than quadrupled from about 12,500 in 1992 to more than 56,000 as of 2023.

The expansion of LWOP was the result of the confluence of two very different groups. The right-wing — tough-on-crime — hardliners who, beginning in the mid-1980s, declared war on drugs and violent crime and adopted harsher, mandatory sentences, including LWOP.

The second group includes the death penalty abolitionists, left-leaning progressives, who adopted LWOP sentences as a logical alternative to the death penalty. As the death penalty waned — only 24 executions in 2023 — those opposed to the death penalty have now set their sights on LWOP.

The cost and morality of locking-up — forever — a wide swath of offenders began to be questioned in 2012 following a landmark Supreme Court decision involving juvenile offenders.

Fourteen-year-old Evan Miller was accused of murder in Lawrence County, Alabama, in 2003. Miller went to trial and was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without parole. The United States is the only country that allows the sentence of life without parole for juveniles.

Miller filed an appeal, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority in Miller v. Alabama in what would become a landmark decision wrote, "Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. 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."

Pennsylvania had the highest population of juvenile lifers in the country. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, of the 520 juveniles serving life without parole, 497 have been re-sentenced and 303 have been released.

A number of states are reviewing offenses that are subject to LWOP. The Massachusetts Supreme Court banned sentences of life without parole for juveniles in 2013. Today there are 28 states that have banned juvenile LWOP.

In January, the Massachusetts Supreme Court again took the lead issuing a landmark ruling that expanded its earlier holding and raised the minimum age for life without parole from 18 to 21. Washington, D.C., has gone even further raising the age of eligibility for LWOP to 25.

According to Bolt, a digital magazine, over the last 12 months, Connecticut and Illinois both adopted laws to restrict LWOP up to age 21. In Michigan and Washington, judges banned sentencing rules that mandate life without parole for people under 19 and 21, respectively.

Reform proponents in other states are already lining up to be next. According to Bolt, California's Supreme Court heard a case in December that could prohibit life without parole up to age 26.

Today, the rallying cry for reformers is "life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment regardless of the age of the offender."

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book "The Executioner's Toll, 2010" was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

To visit Creators CLICK HERE


No comments:

Post a Comment