Pennsylvania Amends Juvenile Murder Sentencing

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Pennsylvania’s General Assembly last week, on the last day of its session, voted to end the automatic life without parole for teens convicted of first- or second-degree murder. But some advocates say the new scheme misses the point of real reform.

Senate Bill 850 sets the minimum sentence for first-degree murders committed by 15- to 17-year-olds at 35 years. For younger teens, it’s 25 years.

New second-degree murder minimum sentences would be broken up in the same tiers: 30 years for older teens; 20 for younger ones.

The bill is now on the desk of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. According to AP reports, he is likely to sign.

That replaces a mandatory sentencing scheme that sent such teen offenders to life without parole or even death. Pennsylvania is among the first of about 25 states that still need to change those mandatory sentences for young people after the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional earlier this year.

But the new bill is “harsher than it needed to be, it left a lot of what the U.S. Supreme Court told us on the table,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama this June said that young people are more impulsive, more capable of change and less mature and less able to make good judgments than adults. Thus, the court argued, juveniles convicted of murder must be given a sentencing hearing and judges must take into account mitigating factors such as age, past experience with the courts, family history, or mental illness. That rules out mandatory sentences.

Levick said she believes the U.S. Supreme Court is advising “a different paradigm” that’s more flexible, individualized and sensitive to research on adolescent brain development.

Decarcerate Pennsylvania, a grassroots group fighting to end and reverse prison expansion, also argued against the bill. Their official statement argues that new sentencing rules should make “meaningful and substantive” change.

“The bill does not honor the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court decision which asserts that children should be sentenced in a way that holds them accountable for their mistakes while also recognizing their youthfulness and their potential for change,” reads a statement the group released.

The new sentencing rules were amended onto an existing bill in September, the first chance Pennsylvania had to make a change after the Miller ruling.

Decarcerate Pennsylvania’s statement argued that the process was too fast, lacking public debate and discussion, and closing an opportunity for “substantive, thoughtful” legislation.

Levick thinks the door is closed on a redo, predicting the General Assembly will have no “appetite” to revisit juvenile murder sentencing.

The bill is not retroactive either, so does not apply to Pennsylvania’s 500 or so lifers, though Levick is arguing a case at the state Supreme Court that could make them eligible to apply for resentencing.

Oral arguments have already been made, but the state supreme court has yet to announce a date for its opinion.

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