Juvenile Life Without Parole in Pennsylvania

Approximately 2,600 inmates nationwide serve life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles; over 450 of them are serving in Pennsylvania—the most of any U.S. jurisdiction. See below for updates on work Juvenile Law Center has done in Pennsylvania related to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Alabama, banning mandatory JLWOP sentences.

July 2012: Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Miller  Implementation

In July 2012, Pennsylvania Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-12), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored a public hearing to receive testimony on how to implement Miller. Juvenile Law Center Associate Director Lourdes Rosado testified, emphasizing the unique nature of juvenile offenders, as affirmed by the Supreme Court in MillerRoperGraham, and J.D.B.and recommended ways for the state General Assembly to comply with Miller's mandates. 

Read Ms. Rosado's full testimony or view a video recording of the Committee hearing

September 2012: Commonwealth v. Batts Argued Before PA Supreme Court

On September 12, 2012, Juvenile Law Center Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Marsha Levick argued before the PA Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Batts on behalf of Qu'eed Batts, who was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for a homicide he committed at age 14. She argued that, based on Miller, Pennsylvania's statutory scheme of sentencing any juvenile convicted of first or second degree murder to life without parole is now unconstitutional, and that Batts' sentence must be vacated and a new constitutional sentence imposed. She also argued that the only constitutional statutory sentence available is the sentence for lesser included offenses, and that the Court should hold that the appropriate remedy for juveniles convicted of first degree murder is to impose the current statutory sentence for the lesser included offense of third degree murder.

View Marsha's argument here (scroll to 31:00). 

November 2012: Act 204 Signed Into Law

In November 2012, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law Act 204, which establishes new sentencing requirements for juveniles convicted of first and second degree murder. These sentencing requirements leave life without parole as an option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. 

Under Act 204, juveniles convicted of first degree murder may be sentenced to life without parole or: 

  • A minimum of 35 years to life for youth ages 15-17
  • 25 to life for youth 14 or younger

Juveniles convicted of second-degree (felony) murder may be sentenced to:

  • A minimum of 30 years to life for 15-17 year olds
  • 20 to life for youth 14 and under

Read Juvenile Law Center's reaction to this legislation. 

January 2013: PA Commission on Sentencing's Proposed Amendments to State Sentencing Guidelines

In response to Act 204, the PA Commission on Sentencing in January 2013 proposed an amendment to the state sentencing guidelines. These guidelines recommend that juveniles should be sentenced to life without parole only when they are repeat violent offenders with two or more prior charges. However, the guidelines also suggest that Act 204's mandatory minimums should apply only when a juvenile has no prior record—they recommend going up 5 years of incarceration for each point in a prior record score. Violent charges such as murder, rape, and aggravated assault account for 4 points each. 

Read Juvenile Law Center's submitted comments to the Commission on these guidelines. 

March 2013: PA Supreme Court Rules in Commonwealth v. Batts

On March 26, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Batts held that Qu’eed Batts, who received a mandatory life without parole sentence for a crime he committed when he was 14, was entitled to a resentencing hearing. At that resentencing, Mr. Batts can receive a sentence of life, leaving the trial court the discretion to set the minimum term that Mr. Batts must serve. 

In setting the minimum term (or parole eligibility), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court emphasized that trial courts must consider “appropriate age-related factors," like age and the juvenile's capacity for rehabilitation. The decision in Batts applies to juveniles whose homicide convictions were still on appeal at the time the United States Supreme Court decided Miller. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has yet to decide Commonwealth v. Cunningham, a companion case to Batts, in which it will rule on whether Miller should apply retroactively in Pennsylvania. Juvenile Law Center has taken the position that Miller should be retroactive, and should apply to the roughly 500 juveniles serving mandatory life sentences in the Commonwealth. 

The next step for juveniles in Batts’s position is a resentencing hearing before the trial judge.

Read our blog post responding to the Supreme Court's ruling. 

October 2013: PA Supreme Court Rules in Commonwealth v. Cunningham

On October 30, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Commonwealth v. Cunningham that the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Miller does not apply retroactively to individuals like Cunningham whose convictions became final before the Miller ruling. In its 4-3 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that the vast majority of the 500 individuals serving juvenile life without parole sentences in Pennsylvania are not entitled to individualized sentencing hearings, and therefore must continue to serve their unconstitutional mandatory life without parole sentences. 

Read Juvenile Law Center's statement on this ruling. 

Further Reading

More testimony from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

Read Executive Director Robert Schwartz's testimony from previous hearings:

Pennsylvania JLWOP News