In today’s world, having access to your vital records (birth certificate, Social Security card, state ID card) is, in fact, vital. The consequences system-involved youth experience by not having these essential records include potential housing instability, the inability to pursue certain educational opportunities and financial aid, and lack of access to public benefits. Not having identification can also be a barrier to employment. This is the situation Bruce Morgan, Juvenile Law Center’s youth advocate alum, faced.
While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.
More than two years after U.S. Supreme Court decisions started throwing out mandatory death and life sentences for minors, judges in Washington, Illinois and dozens of other states still lack guidance on what to do with juveniles past and present convicted of murder and some other serious felonies. “Courts are uncomfortable in trying to figure out what ‘life’ means in terms of years,” said Kimberly Ambrose, senior law lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law. She represented Guadalupe Solis-Diaz at the state’s Court of Appeals, arguing against a 92-year sentence he’s serving for six counts of first-degree assault and other charges for his role in a drive-by shooting. The then 16-year-old Solis-Diaz fired into a crowd in Centralia, Wash., in 2007, though did not injure his target or anyone else. It’s not clear in Washington if those 92 years are equivalent to what the U.S. Supreme Court calls “life” sentences.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today that may lead to a chance at parole for more than 400 inmates convicted of murder as minors. The Court is deciding if a June 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision is retroactive, and if so, what sentence should be given to two convicts in today’s cases. The federal court, in Miller v. Alabama, said that minors convicted of murder have a right to present mitigating factors — such as the immaturity of youth — to sentencing judges. That invalidates one-size-fits-all mandatory life without parole sentences listed in federal and 28 states’ statutes. “It’s about retroactivity and also resentencing,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania, who is arguing for retroactivity before the court.
Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that a Pike County Jewish summer camp was no longer eligible for tax-exempt status in a ruling that could affect non-profit organizations throughout the state. In a narrow 4-3 decision, the state's Supreme Court ruled the summer camp, operated by Mesivtah Eitz Chaim of Bobov, Inc., did not meet the HUP Test, a series of qualifications, established in the court's previous ruling in Hospital Utilization Project v. Commonwealth 1985, used to determine if an organization is a “purely public charity.” Only organizations meeting the standard are given tax-exempt status by the state. The state's Supreme Court ruled the summer camp did not meet one part of the HUP Test, “relieving the government of some of its burden.”
The camp’s organizers, however, argued Act 55, a 1997 state law that includes a broader definition of a public charity, took precedence over the earlier HUP Test. But the Court dismissed this, ruling the state’s General Assembly could not interpret the Constitution and redefine the meaning of a “purely public charity.”
Stuart L. Knade, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he supported the court’s decision. “People who are students of this area of the law are going to continue to enforce a higher bar to tax exemption,” he said.
State legislatures across the United States have been busy this year with youth and juvenile justice-related legislation. While there have been some failures, such as the last-minute death in the Georgia General Assembly of a comprehensive juvenile code rewrite — a bill that many feared county governments couldn’t afford — other states are working on or have managed to pass significant measures. A few of them are noted below. Perhaps one of the biggest efforts is in California where Gov. Jerry Brown has announced plans to close all of his state’s remaining juvenile detention centers, transferring responsibility for the youth detained there to county parole departments and effectively eliminating the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Consequently, most juveniles in the system would be referred to rehabilitation programs in their home communities.
Sitting behind her strikingly barren desk, with the bright, mid-winter sunlight breaking through the trees and streaming through her office windows, Martha Grace Duncan, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, in Atlanta recounts the case of nine-year-old Cameron Kocher. As she speaks her small, compact frame remains nearly motionless, betraying no emotion. But her eyes tell the story, portraying the internal mix-up of sadness, passion and nerdy intensity that she feels about the topic. Duncan may not wear her heart on her sleeve, but if you pay attention it’s not hard to find. In March 1989, on a cold, snowy day in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, Kocher fatally shot a seven-year-old playmate with a high-powered hunting rifle.
Juveniles appearing in delinquency proceedings in Pennsylvania will be required to have legal representation following an amendment to the commonwealth’s Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. The change, effective March 1, follows the “kids for cash” scandal in Luzerne County, Pa. in which juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella took kickbacks from the builder of two for-profit youth detention centers and routinely denied juveniles in his court their right to an attorney. The new rules say youth under the age of 14 must have an attorney present at all delinquency proceedings and children 14 years of age or older may only waive their right to counsel in very limited circumstances. Even then, the court must be satisfied the waiver was made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily.
With former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky facing allegations of sexual abuse against eight children spanning a 15-year period, many in the American public are left wondering how such a chronic narrative of seduction and abuse could go on so long. At least one parent brought allegations of sex abuse to the police as early as 1998. Since then, at least two university employees say they witnessed Sandusky in the commission of a sexual act with young boys, yet according to records from local law enforcement the complaints never reached police. In 2000, a Penn State janitor says he witnessed what he described as Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy in a university shower, according to a Pennsylvania state grand jury. He never reported the incident, fearing he would lose his job, according the grand jury.