Very recently, Brenda “Sonny” Baker died of cancer. It was a coup de grace many of us incarcerated women at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, Pa., did not see coming — in fact, few of us even knew the severity of her illness. Brenda bravely kept the grisly details under wraps so that she could put on a courageous front for the women she was serving time with; sparing herself from what she deemed to be unnecessary pity and attention.
Steven Cave’s transformation happened in spite of a system that calls itself correctional but instead, he says, perpetuated his worst traumas, beliefs and behaviors. He entered that system in the state that has sentenced the most minors to life without parole, and where solitary confinement was a favorite method of punishment. In 2013, the Department of Justice found the state’s use of it in several facilities was unconstitutional.
Several years ago I wrote an opinion column about Marie Scott, a 19-year-old woman sentenced to life without parole in 1973 by the criminal justice system in Philadelphia.
Today, her co-defendant remains in prison waiting for his parole date. Leroy Saxton was 16 years old when he shot their victim to death.
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.