Pennsylvania Misses the Mark on Life Without Parole for Juveniles

Juvenile Law Center,

photo via :Dar.

Pennsylvania this month missed an opportunity to transform the harshest sentencing scheme in the world into one that is fair, proportional, and consistent with the latest knowledge of adolescent development.

On June 25, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Miller v. Alabama, the third in a series of recent landmark opinions regarding the sentencing of youth in the criminal justice system. Each of these decisions recognized that youth under the age of 18 should not be treated the same as adults, and that harsh sentencing laws that fail to take account of the distinct attributes of children and youth will fail to pass constitutional muster. Children are not simply smaller versions of adults and are not as culpable for their actions. In Miller, the Court found mandatory life without parole sentences to be unconstitutional for youth convicted of murder committed when they were under the age of 18. Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in this area, with over five hundred juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole following conviction of either first or second degree murder. In writing for the majority in Miller, Justice Elena Kagan stated,

"mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments' and... a 'judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.'" She went on to add, “given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty we noted in Roper and Graham of distinguishing at this early age between “the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

Pennsylvania’s response—Senate Bill 850—did little to address Miller’s concerns. It established new sentencing requirements that not only leave life without parole as an option for juveniles convicted of first degree murder but also impose severe mandatory minimum sentences as the only alternative option. Under the new law, courts will have to impose a minimum of 35 years to life for youth ages 15-17, and 25 to life for youth 14 years of age or younger. In cases of second degree (felony) murder, where there is no finding of intent to kill and youth often play a peripheral role in the crime,  courts will be required to impose mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years–life for 15-17 year olds, and 20-life for youth under the age of 14.

Juvenile Law Center, along with many other advocates, faith groups, and family members, opposed this legislation. But with proponents determined to rush the bill through in a matter of days so they could recess to campaign, there was insufficient time to educate the legislature about the folly of the new bill. Retiring Senator Mary Jo White spoke for many of us when she stated, in opposing the bill,

"I am here for one of my last votes of my career and to voice my extreme displeasure, not just about the content,  but in the manner it is presented. [This bill] never came through the judiciary committee and I saw it for the first time today.  What is particularly egregious…the House took advantage of this hodge podge to take up a serious matter of minors sentenced to life without parole…  and now have created mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums one…of the reasons didn't come through Senate Judiciary is because we have expressed an extreme displeasure with mandatory minimums.  Judges need discretion. We have now tied their hands. [I am] very offended by turning our process over to stakeholders. When we permit this kind of process and bypass our own standing bodies, we make this body irrevelant and that is really sad.” 

Policymakers should have moved forward more thoughtfully and deliberatively, taking proper account of settled research. Yes, legislators appropriately responded to the need to address our outdated and unconstitutional sentencing scheme. But SB 850 merely exchanges one bad law for another. SB 850 offers only two sentencing options in cases of first degree murder—including life without parole—and only one option in cases of felony murder. Additionally, SB 850’s sentencing provisions do not adequately allow for the individualized review of cases required by the Supreme Court’s Miller decision. 

While it might make sense for the legislature to treat younger adolescents differently than older adolescents, the line-drawing proposed by SB 850 is arbitrary, lacking any scientific foundation. Research has shown that as a group, 15 year olds are much more like younger teens than like 16 and 17 year olds. If the legislature is going to engage in line-drawing, it should draw the line rationally.

Finally, SB 850 is out of step with the view of criminal justice professionals. Indeed, the American Law Institute (ALI) recently revisited its Model Penal Code (MPC) sentencing provisions to chart a specialized course for the sentencing of younger offenders who have been convicted in adult criminal courts. The MPC’s new sentencing grid for juveniles mandates that for crimes where the Code would otherwise require a life sentence for adult offenders, twenty years should be the maximum prison term available for offenders who were under the age of 16 at the time of the offense, and ten years should be the maximum prison term available for offenders who were under the age of 14 at the time they committed the offense. It further recommends that for anyone under the age of 18, no sentence of imprisonment longer than 25 years be imposed for any offense or combination of offenses. ALI’s mission is to clarify, modernize and otherwise improve the law. It is comprised of 4,000 lawyers, judges and law professors, and produces the authoritative scholarly work on sentencing in this country. The MPC sentencing provisions serve as a model for legislatures around the country. The General Assembly blundered when it declined to use the MCP as a guide to new legislation in Pennsylvania. 

As advocates for the rights and well-being of children, Juvenile Law Center believes that no child should ever be deemed, at such an early age, to be irretrievably broken or without the capacity to change. Studies in behavioral research and neuroscience confirm what common sense tells us—children act impulsively, have poor judgment, are highly susceptible to peer pressure, and have enormous capacity for change. The U.S. Supreme Court considered this research in deciding to ban certain sentences for juveniles. Pennsylvania’s General Assembly did not choose to do the same.  We hope that either Governor Corbett will decline to sign the bill into law or legislators will have the courage to recognize and correct this miscarriage of justice.