How States Are Dealing with Unconstitutional Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

March 28th, 2016

By Claire Glass

small picIn its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court of the United States found mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the 8th Amendment, unfairly subjecting juveniles to the same sentences as their adult counterparts without giving  judges an opportunity to consider the defendant’s age and individual circumstances as mitigating factors. The landmark decision left unanswered, however, whether it would apply to the 2,500 some incarcerated people around the country already serving these unconstitutional sentences, and if so, what process should be employed for re-sentencing.

In January 2016, after several years of inconsistent application among the states, the Court ruled that Miller applies retroactively in Montgomery v. Louisiana. The decision is explicit in extending Miller to juvenile lifers sentenced before 2012. The court remained silent in devising a specific re-sentencing system, leaving it up to the 28 states impacted by Miller, to craft legislative or judicial solutions.

Thirteen states elected to apply Miller retroactively in 2012, while a number of others, including Louisiana and Pennsylvania, chose to leave those sentenced as juveniles to die in prison. With 524 individuals sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, including 300 in Philadelphia County alone, Pennsylvania confines more juvenile lifers than any other state, and is bracing its court system to accommodate the swath of cases now eligible for review.

“It’s not quite literally life and death for these guys, but it might as well be,” Emily Keller, senior staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said. “This is their last best chance to ever have a shot at returning home.”

A string of decisions preceding Montgomery coalesced to establish that juveniles require special consideration in sentencing. In 2005, the Court banned the death penalty for juveniles, and in its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, limited the use of life without parole for juveniles to those convicted of homicides. The Court’s 8th Amendment analysis in Graham hinged on the disproportionality of these punishments for for non-homicide crimes, constituting cruel and unusual punishment, and paving the way for 2012. Finally, in Miller, Justice Kagan wrote that children’s brains are simply different than adults’, leaving many young people ill-equipped to anticipate and comprehend consequences.

Some states have enacted or plan to pass sweeping legislation that simply comports all of the life without parole sentences to life with parole. California, for example, passed Senate Bill 9 in October of 2012, eliminating life without parole for juveniles altogether and giving those in the midst of these unconstitutional sentences the option to petition for release and parole. Wyoming passed a similar law in 2013.

Despite the massive amount of cases to be reviewed in Pennsylvania, the state will not draft comprehensive legislation. Instead, Pennsylvania will be relying on public defenders and non-profits like the Juvenile Law Center to train the ranks to handle this entirely new subset of cases.

Adding to the complexity of the issue for the state, Pennsylvania is one of 9 states that include felony murder in the definition of second degree murder. This means that many of its juvenile lifers were convicted of playing supportive roles, for example, driving a getaway car, in the commission of a felony during which someone was killed. According to Keller, the variation among cases will add to the complexity of review.

“When you’re talking about 300 cases from not one state, but from one county, you’re not talking about a administrative burden, you’re talking about a nightmare,” Keller said. “Sentencing hearings require a great deal of resources; you need attorneys who understand the ruling in Miller, experts to testify to the individual’s maturity level and decision making capabilities, family background, and in some instances, you’ll have to figure out what that should look like in a case that’s one, two, three decades old.”

Judge Ben Lerner, Philadelphia’s former chief homicide judge, now deputy managing director of criminal justice for the City, has plans to meet with representatives from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s office, and the judiciary committee to consider budgetary requests to train new and existing attorneys to handle the cases. The Defender association has already begun to train attorneys in Philadelphia, with trainings scheduled in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in April.

According to Bradley Bridge, senior attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, his office hopes for the budget to handle 225 cases over the next three years and to hire ten additional attorneys to take these cases. Bridge added that much will depend on the distract attorney’s willingness to negotiate, as opposed to litigate, the majority of cases, the latter being much more labor intensive, time consuming, and expensive.

According to Keller, the Juvenile Law Center would have courts look to the most serious lesser included offense, which would mean immediate release for many. If even 100 of the 500 individuals whose cases must be revisited are parole eligible, Keller said the parole board would be overburdened.

“Our hope is that there could be something for the folks who have been serving decades and have been doing really well,” Keller said. “We’re hopeful that they can come home soon.”