Once a month, my husband and I visit a juvenile lifer at a state prison in Waynesburg, Pa., just 15 miles north of the West Virginia border. Every time we take the exit for Ken’s prison, those signs for West Virginia remind me that the difference between hope and despair often depends on a state line.
Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles constitute cruel and unusual punishment, the states’ responses to Miller v. Alabama have varied significantly.
In West Virginia, the legislature passed a bipartisan law that eliminates juvenile life without parole as a sentencing option and provides parole review after no more than 15 years to every child sentenced to adult prison. That new law appropriately offers no guarantee that all children convicted of homicide in West Virginia will be released. But it’s a fragile breath of hope to those who are remorseful and genuinely desire to become contributing members of society.
Unfortunately, that hope doesn’t exist in all states, including Pennsylvania. Here in the Keystone state, the state supreme court has decided that children sentenced to life without parole before the Miller ruling was issued on June 25, 2012 — like Ken — will never have a chance to leave prison. Not in 15 years. Not in 30. Not in 60. Not ever. So those signs for West Virginia are cruel reminders that unlike our neighbors 15 miles to the south, we will be making prison visits until we are too old to drive.
To be honest, I didn’t always care about this issue. My husband is a retired law enforcement officer and my grandfather was a New York City police officer. In my view, there was nothing redeeming about an inmate.
But life has its share of curious detours and mine began four years ago. My first contact with Ken came when a man brought his wildlife paintings into my art store. I was stunned. How was it possible that the most talented artist I had ever come across was an inmate?
What I never imagined is that Ken’s decency and humanity would rival the art that so enthralled me. The boy I would once have considered a total “waste of breath” grew into a young man even the officers at his prison like and respect.
Still, my heart did not change overnight. Though Ken was a homeless, 15-year-old boy at the time of his crime, I assumed the gravity of that crime placed him far beyond redemption. But four years later, we have no doubt of his goodness and the love he has for us. In Ken’s eyes, we are the only parents he has ever known.
Today, I am far more cognizant of the impact severe abuse and neglect have on a child’s moral compass and decision-making. I am well acquainted with the research that demonstrates that children’s brains are less developed than adults’ in the areas governing impulsivity and judgment. Yet the most powerful lesson I learned is that children have a unique capacity to change and become responsible, moral human beings.
That’s why I believe West Virginia is the state that got it right. Pennsylvania is among only four states where the state supreme court ruled that Miller should not be applied retroactively. Eight other state supreme courts — the majority that have considered the issue — have all rightly decided that Miller’s ban on mandatory life without parole for children should include those sentenced before June 25, 2012. This regional disparity demonstrates even more clearly the problem with leaving this decision to the states. Since when do constitutional rights depend upon the state where you live and an arbitrary date?
The blunt reality is this: The post-Miller landscape is confusing and messy. Lady Justice has removed her blindfold and is now noting the date and place of conviction before coming up with a sentence.
So despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a child is “cruel and unusual punishment,” states like Pennsylvania disagree. For them, it is only cruel and unusual if you were convicted on the right date and in the right state.
Cindy Sanford of Bloomsburg, Pa., is a registered nurse and author of the forthcoming “Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released.’ ”