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Why Did PA Sentence Children To Die, And What's Happened To Them Since SCOTUS Stepped In?

Matt Rourke
A young person views through a fence a painting of gun violence victim Shirkey Warthen before a ceremony commemorating Warthen with a new mural in Philadelphis in 2013. He was a member of Juvenile Law Center's youth advocacy program when he was killed.

For decades in the 20th Century, the U.S. treated children differently than adults in the criminal court system -- experts at the time believed kids were inherently more capable of rehabilitation. 

But with the spike in crime in the late 1980s and early '90s, that changed. We started sentencing them to life in prison, and for some, to die.

On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris talks to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. She's now helping re-sentence thousands of Pennsylvanians convicted as children in the wake of repeated U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Our use of juvenile court says changed a lot over the past 30 years. For decades before that, we treated juveniles as different than adults and assumed that they could be rehabilitated. But beginning with the spike in crime in the late '80s and early '90s that changed. Why was that?

MARSHA LEVICK: It changed because the increase in juvenile violence caused most state legislatures across the country to just make it easier to try juveniles as adults thinking that that would be an appropriate response to that rise in crime that they were seeing.

HARRIS: In juvenile courts, we think of children being uniquely capable of having the potential for rehabilitation, but that wasn't always the dominant thinking. How has our opinion of kids in their capacity for crime changed?

LEVICK: I think research has really led the way and how we have changed our thinking about kids. As we learn more about both adolescent development and, frankly, the teenage brain, we have a much greater understanding of the ways in which kids are different, the ways in which they're less blameworthy for their criminal conduct and the ways in which we should think differently about how we hold them accountable for that conduct.

HARRIS: Today, kids in the juvenile system can only be incarcerated, if that's necessary, until they're either 18 or 21, depending on the state. But sentences can be much longer in the adult system if the kid is transferred there, correct?

LEVICK: That's correct. Children who are tried and convicted as adults are really subject to the exact same sentencing options that an adult offender would face if they were tried in that same system.

HARRIS: That neuroscience that you referred to -- that's pretty new. In the 1980s and '90s, courts were sentencing juveniles to death and to life without parole. The Supreme Court has stepped in since then. No more juvenile death penalty. What's been the fallout? How did those serious penalties affect who's in our jails and prisons?

LEVICK: Well I think the immediate effect was that we had frankly thousands of individuals who had been convicted of, many of them, serious violent crimes that were committed under the age of 18 serving decades in prison. Certainly there were many who were executed before the United States Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 2005. We are seeing the fallout from that now as we are trying to re-sentence thousands of individuals across the country to try and give them more humane sentences that are consistent with the Supreme Court's decision.

HARRIS: At the height of a life-without-parole system, Pennsylvania had the highest number of juveniles in prison on life without parole sentences. What's happening to them now?

LEVICK: We are now going through the process of re-sentencing over 500 individuals here in Pennsylvania. We have about 100 roughly that have been re-sentenced since 2016. Of that number, about 70 or so have actually been granted parole and are living back in their communities. It is an opportunity, I think, for these individuals to demonstrate their growth and their maturity, to demonstrate what they have learned as a consequence of being in prison and to have a second chance really to come back to their families and their communities and to contribute to their community [of the formerly incarcerated].

HARRIS: How have those cases worked out, of those 70 people? How are they doing?

LEVICK: At this point, they're all doing really well and I think one of the really must heartening things that I've seen is that their community is coming together and supporting one another. They have created peer groups of other individuals who have come out of prison. There's obviously a large contingent here in Philadelphia. But they are trying to help each other as they make an adjustment to a society that has changed dramatically, as we can imagine. Many of these folks have been in prison for 20, 30 or 40 years.

Criminal Injustice is a weekly podcast by 90.5 WESA. You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with former prosecutor David LaBahn on this week’s episode of the Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcast app.

Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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