What to Do with Pennsylvania’s Bad Kids

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh City Paper
Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh City Paper

by: Jenna R. Smith, Staff Writer

Earlier this year, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, held that mandatory laws requiring lifetime incarceration without the possibility of parole to children convicted of homicide violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This change in law has led states to make difficult decisions on how to amend existing laws to accommodate the Supreme Court’s decision. One state grappling with such changes is Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Superior Court has overruled prior case law and adopted the holding of Miller in Commonwealth. v. Knox.

Pennsylvania is one of the states listed in Miller that does not have a separate penalty provision for juvenile offenders. Of the 29 jurisdictions mandating life without parole for children, more than half do so by virtue of generally applicable penalty provisions, imposing the sentence without regard to age.

Pennsylvania imposes life without parole sentences in first- and second-degree murder cases. Also, the Commonwealth sets no minimum age for who may be transferred to adult court in the first instance, thus applying life-without-parole mandates to children of any age — be it a 17 or 14 year old, or even a 10 or 6 year old.
Before imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Miller’s holding suggested that legislators should enact legislation that permits a trial judge to evaluate a juvenile offender on the basis of individualized sentencing. The United States Supreme Court ultimately concluded that, “Our decision does not categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime . . . Instead, it mandates only that a sentencer follow a certain process – considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics – before imposing a particular penalty.”
On Oct. 17, 2012, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill, 37-12, designed to give Pennsylvania judges options other than life in prison when sentencing juveniles in murder cases. The bill would create new sentencing options, with penalties that depend on the age of the defendant and whether the defendant is convicted of first- or second-degree murder. Those defendants who are 14 years old or younger would serve at least 20 years for second-degree convictions and 25 years for first-degree convictions. Offenders who are 15 to 17 years old would face at least 25 or 35 years.
In imposing a mandatory minimum sentence for a juvenile who commits a serious crime, Pennsylvania must consider providing the juvenile offender the essential tools and remedies available to promote and guarantee rehabilitation: a secure, yet therapeutic environment, access to intensive counseling and therapy and access to education.

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