Absurd decision: Pennsylvania justices err on the side of cruelty

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"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things." -- Corinthians 13:11

The ancient wisdom that children are different from adults has also influenced ideas on the extent to which children should be held responsible for their actions. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court took that enlightened view to its logical extension, finding that "children are constitutionally different."

By a 5-4 majority in Miller v. Alabama, the justices said that mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole constitute cruel and unusual punishment for defendants who are convicted and sentenced for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.

The life sentence wasn't the problem in itself, the court said -- it was the mandatory process that failed to consider the minor's upbringing, maturity and other factors when the crime was committed. As we said at the time, it was a nod toward mercy and pragmatism. Those minors who deserved a life sentence would still get it, and those who were too young or immature to make an adult decision when they committed the crime might get a break.

This case was important to Pennsylvania, which has the unsavory distinction of being home to more juvenile lifers than any other state -- 48 in Allegheny County alone. But last week, to the dismay and surprise of those who care about juvenile justice, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Supreme Court precedent did not apply to those already convicted as minors and sentenced to life.

The state court was hearing an appeal from Ian Cunningham, who in 1999 with three others robbed the occupants of a vehicle in Philadelphia; Cunningham, then 17, shot and killed a man. He was sentenced to life without possibility of parole in 2002. In the absence of the U.S. Supreme Court making clear whether its ruling was to be applied retroactively, Pennsylvania's top court ruled 4-3 that the law as it stood in 2002 applied.

The legal logic of this decision may be technically sound, but it is at odds with the spirit of Miller v. Alabama and errs on the side of cruelty and, indeed, absurdity -- that a law declared unconstitutional now cannot be the basis of overturning a sentence imposed then. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, in a concurring opinion, mentioned the "seeming inequity." He suggested that the Legislature might want to act. Good luck with that.

The U.S. Supreme Court is going to have to revisit this issue to deal with the matter of retroactivity -- because ancient wisdom is lacking in states like Pennsylvania.


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