Editorial: Youth should be a factor

Posted: August 02, 2010

The Supreme Court ruling in May that juveniles jailed for life should have a chance for parole is unlikely to change attitudes for those who believe teens convicted of brutal crimes should be locked up and the key thrown away.

That much should be apparent during testimony Wednesday at a Pennsylvania House hearing scheduled in Philadelphia, where the House Judiciary Committee will consider legislation in response to the high-court ruling.

Along with legal experts and juvenile-justice rights advocates, the panel will hear from several crime victims and a victims' advocacy group - all witnesses likely to oppose parole for teen lifers.

But state lawmakers and trial- and appellate-court judges nonetheless will need to face up to the compelling logic behind the Supreme Court ruling - driven, in part, by what the court called "evolving standards of decency."

Just as the Supreme Court concluded in its earlier landmark ruling abolishing the death penalty for juveniles, its May ruling on parole pointed to scientific evidence that teens' brains are undeveloped. That makes juveniles susceptible to bad decisions, but also means they are more capable of rehabilitation with maturity.

Even though the ruling focused on life without parole in non-homicide cases, it impacts all juvenile crimes. It stands as a particular moral challenge to Pennsylvania, where prisons hold about one in five of all U.S. juvenile lifers.

In fact, six Pennsylvania convicts' causes are being taken up as test cases by area lawyers, joined by experts from law schools in San Francisco and Boston. New sentencing hearings are being sought for these lifers, according to Bradley S. Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The high court ruling, Bridge says, provides "an opportunity for a lot of change."

Beyond those half-dozen cases, there are hundreds of lifers who, by virtue of underage convictions, deserve a shot at parole. Not all, of course, should be set free. But under a proposal by Rep. Kenyatta J. Johnson (D., Phila.), the courts would be given discretion to review these inmates' life-without-parole sentences. His legislation (H.B. 1999) also would require that future life sentences given juveniles come with the proviso for parole.

State leaders have a duty to enact sentencing reforms befitting a nation that values justice so highly, while also addressing the possibility of parole for juvenile lifers now behind bars.


The hearing on Rep. Johnson's legislation will be Wednesday at 10 a.m. in City Hall Room 400.

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