Supreme Court ruling should give Pa. sentencing back to the judges

Stacey Torrance, seen in 2003 with his niece and nephew, was sentenced to life without parole for a homicide when he was 16, in 1988. Inquirer archive
Stacey Torrance, seen in 2003 with his niece and nephew, was sentenced to life without parole for a homicide when he was 16, in 1988. Inquirer archive
Posted: June 29, 2012

It doesn't matter whether someone is murdered by a person who is 15 or 50; a life is taken, and our society is less for it. What does matter is how we as a civilized society respond. Treating the 15-year-old the same as the 50-year-old might appeal to the sound-bite philosophers who preach "adult time for adult crime," but it renders less justice than revenge.

The important difference between juveniles and adults was the basis of a Supreme Court ruling this week that could require resentencing in almost 500 Pennsylvania cases — 350 of them from Philadelphia — in which children were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The high court had already taken the death penalty off the table for crimes committed by juveniles, as well as life without parole in non-homicide cases. Building on those rulings, the court found it unconstitutionally cruel and inhumane to sentence juveniles to life without parole for homicides given their "lessened culpability" and greater "capacity for change." Research has shown that the human brain develops well into the twenties, particularly its ability to control impulses.

Pennsylvania law, however, specifically excludes anyone sentenced to death or life from consideration for parole, and life sentences are required for first- or second-degree homicide convictions. So now we have a de facto violation of the Constitution whenever a crime of this magnitude is committed by a juvenile and tried in adult court.

This week's ruling no doubt caused momentary joy on the cell blocks of the commonwealth's prisons. But two other unsettled issues now come to the fore. One is that while prisoners must initiate any request for resentencing, they are not entitled to counsel to assist with such petitions. And most do not have the funds to hire an attorney or the ability to represent themselves.

This raises the question of why these prisoners should be held responsible for fixing the state's violation of the Constitution. Usually, the loser in a case incurs the costs. If we are civilized enough to admit our mistakes, we should also assume the burden of making them right.

The other issue goes to the very nature of mandatory sentences. They may have come about because some judges were erratic, imposing extraordinarily long or short sentences at whim. But mandatory sentencing merely shifts the decision from judges to prosecutors, some of whom have proven to be every bit as erratic as some of the worst judges.

Add to this the stiff penalties being assessed by lawmakers before crimes are even contemplated. Removed in time and space, and often motivated by a desire to prove to voters that they are tough on crime, they are inclined to ratchet up sentences constantly.

So why not give the discretion back to the judges? They are usually the parties in the courtroom with the most independence and legal seasoning.

Justice should be about more than getting even or proving our toughness. It should also be about fairness tempered by consideration of the circumstances.

William DiMascio is executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

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