Pa.'s high court grapples with federal decision on sentencing juveniles

Posted: September 13, 2012

NEARLY THREE months after the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for minors, the state's Supreme Court justices heard suggestions for what to do about the 500 inmates already serving that sentence.

But the only thing clear after Wednesday's 90-minute hearing at City Hall: There's no easy answer. A ruling could take months.

The issue is huge in Pennsylvania, which leads the nation - and the world - in the number of juveniles it condemns to prison for life. Lawyer Bradley Bridge, a juvenile-law reformer who testified Wednesday, estimates that about 500 people are serving that sentence in Pennsylvania, representing one-fifth of about 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide. The tally is the result of Pennsylvania's tough mandatory sentencing for homicide offenders that discounts an offender's age, background or role in the crime.

Although Pennsylvania's parole prohibition for young killers, under the federal ruling, is unconstitutional, the state has no guidelines for parole, because state law mandates the death penalty or life-without-parole for murderers.

The state Legislature ultimately has to decide the appropriate penalty for minors who murder, said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center.

In the meantime, Levick said, the state justices should convert juvenile lifers' sentences to the next most-serious homicide penalty that includes parole: Twenty to 40 years, the sentence for third-degree murder.

"You get a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old murderer, and now he will be back on the street in his mid-30s: Is that what you're asking for?" Justice Seamus McCaffery said.

"Yes," Levick said, adding that parole eligibility doesn't mean offenders will get out. She said judges could ensure offenders stay in jail longer by ordering consecutive sentences for other charges.

"The reality in many cases is that these individuals will serve very lengthy sentences and may never max out on their sentences," Levick said.

But prosecutors Terence P. Houck and Hugh Burns, appeals chief in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, had a simpler answer: Do nothing.

"Life imprisonment was never banned. [The federal justices] just removed one word from our sentencing statute, which is 'mandatory.' Remove the word 'mandatory' from the sentencing options. Nothing more, nothing less," said Houck, Northampton County's first assistant D.A., who prosecuted juvenile-lifer Qu'eed Batts.

Batts was 14 in 2006 when he shot a teen to death in Easton in a gang initiation. Ian Cunningham was 17 in 1999 when he shot a man, 21, to death during an East Mount Airy robbery.

The state justices' decisions in the cases will set precedent for all of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers. Argument in Cunningham's case centered on appropriate remedies in second-degree murder cases and for offenders who have exhausted their appeals. In Batts' case, argument focused on offenders who are still fighting appeals.

The federal justices ruled that life-without-parole should be levied rarely and that judges should consider cases individually after weighing age, intellect, background and role in a crime.


Contact Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or 215-854-5934. Follow her on Twitter @DanaDiFilippo. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.

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