Pennsylvania has more people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles than any other state.
A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday could reduce those sentences for 497 inmates in Pennsylvania. Those people were convicted as juveniles for homicides; which used to mean automatic life in prison without parole.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that was cruel and unusual punishment. Monday, the court said that ban is retroactive to cases decided before 2012.
Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Legal Counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said it’s unclear if the offender will have to file to be re-sentenced. But when that happens, the sentencing hearing will have to take into account an array of youthful characteristics, such as immaturity, impulsiveness and susceptibility to peer pressure and family circumstances.
“The court will really have to undertake a process of discerning for that individual what the right sentence would have been,” she said.
Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney’s office, said the office did not have a comment on the decision, but said the county has had eight re-sentencing cases affected by the 2012 ruling and has identified 37 more that could be impacted, dating back to 1968.
The ruling was met with celebration from juvenile defenders, while victims’ advocates expressed uncertainty for families who might have to re-testify for the offender’s parole board.
Patrice El-Wagaa, director of victim witness services at the Pittsburgh Center for Victims, said the center tried to be proactive when they knew this was a possibility and tried to reach as many families as they could. When a re-sentencing is scheduled, the center will make contact with the family of the murder victim.
While El-Wagaa’s office advocates locally, the state’s victim advocate, Jennifer Storm, said her office will be notifying 300 victims of juvenile offenders eligible for relief.
“What it looks like for the victims, is the justice they thought they received in the courts is now up in the air. And it could mean that the individual who murdered their loved one could walk out of jail,” she said.
Storm said the decision means victims will be back in the criminal justice system.
“They are going to have to testify again, possibly at the county level, definitely at the state level, if parole consideration happens. And it just rips off all those wounds and puts them in a state of uncertainty and truly re-victimizes them,” she said.
After the initial ruling, the Pennsylvania legislature enacted a minimum sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide of 20 to 35 years, depending on the offender’s age. That law is not retroactive.
Levick said the Supreme Court’s decision shows the court sees juvenile and adult offenders differently.
“When you consider that juveniles as a group not only have these characteristics typical of adolescence, but also are likely to rehabilitate. They will change. They will not remain the same person they were at 15, 16 or 17 (years old),” she said.
In the 6-3 majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said juvenile offenders must be given the opportunity, “To show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
According to an NPR report, the ruling will change sentences for more than 2,100 inmates nationally.