Hearings For Hundreds Of PA Lifers Sentenced As Juveniles A Daunting Task

Feb 12, 2016


Marsha Levick (third from right), the co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, sits on a panel.
Credit Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Hundreds of Pennsylvania inmates serving life sentences now have a shot at release after last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile lifers.

While everyone agrees that the decision should give certain prisoners new hearings, how exactly that will play out is being debated fiercely.

Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of having more offenders serving life behind bars for crimes they committed as teens than any other state.

There are two reasons for this. First, a state law that establishes that there's no minimum age for someone to be charged with felony murder. Secondly, a law requiring mandatory life imprisonment for anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

The Supreme Court court said in 2012 that, going forward, a juvenile can't be given mandatory life sentence without the possibly of parole. And in January, the high court said that should apply retroactively — to all the cases before 2012.

"I think everyone agrees that the United State's Supreme Court's decision is the law and the land and needs to be implemented. The question is not that. The question is, 'How can it be implemented, and what exactly is required?'" said Bradley Bridge with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. 

He said there are many ways to go forward, and no clear direction. Should new hearings be heard is state court, or federal court? Should one judge oversee all the cases? Should prosecutors and defenders get together and set up rules for streamlining?

Read more of this report at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads