In a June decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles in Pennsylvania and other states. The highest court in the land declared that keeping juveniles in custody for life without parole for homicide convictions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment as outlined in the Eighth Amendment. Almost 2,500 juveniles are serving life sentences nationally; of these, 480, or almost 20 percent, call Pennsylvania home. The remaining juveniles reside in facilities in 28 other states.
The legal decision might impact two Lackawanna County men who were convicted of violent juvenile crimes. In 1981, one man was convicted of shooting two small children and sentenced to two life sentences. The other man, a gang member, participated in an execution shooting, a robbery and another shooting that resulted in serious injuries to the victim. He also received a sentence of life in prison without parole plus several additional years.
The law does not offer new options for sentencing the men. One district attorney added that the courts will need further clarity on how to implement the law. Senate and House members are also reviewing how sentencing laws will change and have listened to testimonies on the case. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court plans to listen to arguments related to the effects of the law on parole hearings for the 480 affected inmates.
The impact of this new law on past and present juvenile crimes is unknown. The courts need to determine legal precedence. A criminal attorney who understands the impact that lengthy custody sentences can have on juveniles can defend the rights of those he represents and argue for appropriate sentences.
Source: The Times-Tribune, "State lawmakers tackle juvenile law overturn," Robert Swift, Sept. 4, 2012