Pennsylvania locks away too many juveniles forever
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Almost exactly one year ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the opportunity for parole for a non-homicide offense. The case, Graham v. Florida, built upon a Supreme Court ruling five years earlier that abolished the death penalty for young people.
The court's decisions relied on psychological and neuroscience research on adolescent development that affirmed that juveniles have a less developed sense of responsibility than adults, are more susceptible to outside influences, including peers, and that their character is not fully formed. Based on these findings, the court held that juveniles are not as deserving of the most severe punishments as adults because they are less culpable and have greater capacity to change.
Although Graham v. Florida pertained only to non-homicide offenses, the reasoning behind the decision has great relevance to other serious juvenile crimes and for Pennsylvania, in particular, where more than 450 individuals now serve life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed under the age of 18. That number is nearly 20 percent of the nationwide total, placing Pennsylvania at the top of all states for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed by those under 18 and for crimes committed while under the age of 15.
Approximately one third of the juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania were convicted of second-degree murder, meaning that many of them did not kill someone themselves but were involved in a felony in which a murder occurred. More than half are now over the age of 35, an age at which the risk of recidivism is very low.
Under Pennsylvania law, anyone charged with murder is automatically excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction, regardless of age. A juvenile may request a hearing to show why it is in the public interest for his or her case to be heard in juvenile court. If the request is denied, as it often is, the juvenile is tried in criminal court and, if convicted of first- or second-degree murder, faces the mandatory sentence of life without the opportunity for parole.
These policies are problematic for a number of reasons.
The lack of a minimum age for sending a juvenile to criminal court and the mandatory nature of the sentence neglects fundamental differences between juveniles and adults or even between young children and teenagers. And because there's no alternative to what may be deemed a lenient sentence in juvenile court (release at age 21) and a harsh sentence in criminal court (life without parole), the judicial system cannot find a middle ground and deliver a sentence that reflects both the developmental status of the juvenile and the interests of the public in ensuring that he or she has been rehabilitated.
In affirming the differences in the maturity, responsibility and malleability of children and adults, the Supreme Court upheld the cornerstone of the juvenile justice system, the logic of which is inherent in almost all aspects of life -- including other areas of the legal system -- which holds that young people are not full citizens but possess fewer rights than adults and are subject to an array of regulations that denote this diminished standing.
It is essential that Pennsylvania reform its juvenile justice policies to reflect these differences. Young people who are convicted of murder should be punished, to be sure, but the amount of punishment must reflect their level of culpability and potential for change.
Reforms should begin by establishing a minimum age for transfer to the criminal court, as many states have, and by creating a sentencing system in which juveniles serve a minimum number of years before becoming eligible for parole.
These reforms would begin to take into account the developmental status of young people and provide what the Supreme Court called "a meaningful opportunity for release."
First Published May 22, 2011 12:00 am