Pennsylvania's juveniles seek relief for life sentences

Posted: September 30, 2010

TERRANCE Jamar Graham got slammed with life behind bars after committing armed robberies in Florida at ages 16 and 17.

Qu-eed Batts snagged his life sentence when he, at age 14, gunned down a teenager in Easton in 2006 on the orders of his Bloods street-gang leader.

Today, the two are pioneers in a reformers crusade to abolish life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in the United States.

Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, the justices in May reviewed Graham's case and ruled that life without parole is cruel and unconstitutional for juveniles convicted in nonhomicide cases.

Now, Batts' attorneys are fighting his sentence on the same grounds, saying lifelong imprisonment is just as cruel and unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of murder. Youth, the attorneys argue, have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults. And their brains aren't as fully formed as adults, so they shouldn't face the same penalties, no matter the crime, the attorneys say. The case is pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Nowhere is the issue more closely watched perhaps than in Pennsylvania, which leads the nation - and the world - in the number of minors it sends to prison for life, also known as "juvenile lifers," according to Human Rights Watch.

Although international law prohibits lifelong imprisonment for juveniles, the United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world that haven't ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement that forbids life without parole for minors, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

According to 2008 state records, the most recent available, 444 inmates are in prison for life for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays. However, Bradley Bridge, a defense attorney and reformer, says 2010's total tops 470.

More than 250 of Pennsylvania's inmates who were sentenced to life when they were juveniles have filed petitions citing the Graham ruling, asking judges to grant them an opportunity for parole. Many other inmates plan to file for relief, pending the outcome of the Batts case.

The reasons for Pennsylvania's top billing in the juvenile-

lifer count are rooted in tough state laws.

Anyone accused of murder in Pennsylvania - at any age - is automatically charged as an adult. Although they can petition to be decertified and tried as juveniles, many still end up in adult courts.

And life without parole is a mandatory minimum sentence in Pennsylvania for an offender convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

State law also allows prosecutors to charge suspects with murder regardless of whether they directly, physically caused a death. That means getaway drivers, lookouts and other such accomplices often are held just as accountable in murder cases as the person who did the actual killing. About a third of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers fall in this category, according to the Sentencing Project.

Some lawmakers have championed for change.

State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, D-Phila., introduced a bill last year that would give juvenile lifers a chance for parole after their 31st birthday if they've served at least 15 years of their sentence (and then every three years thereafter).

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks/Montgomery, has held hearings on juvenile sentencing and said he is mulling legislation that would give judges more discretion to weigh the role that an offender had in the crime when deciding punishment.

Bridge and others say state lawmakers should establish a minimum age under which juveniles cannot be tried as adults or charged in a slaying. There now is no minimum; many states set 15 or 16 as the benchmark age.

Critics counter that some kids commit such heinous crimes that they deserve to lose their freedom forever.

And Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, founder of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, said juvenile-justice reformers suffer "brain overclaim syndrome," a concept popularized in 2006 by a University of Pennsylvania professor who argued that juvenile defenders too often and improperly cite neuroscience to pardon criminal responsibility.

 

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