The Pennsylvania Legislature has sent a bill to the governor that would end mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, allowing judges to decide on their own whether to impose life in prison or hand down shorter sentences. The bill is an effort to bring the state in line with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The bill easily cleared the House on Wednesday (October 17) after passing earlier in the Senate. It creates tiered sentencing schemes for juvenile offenders. Under the bill, those who commit first-degree murder while between the ages of 15 and 18, for example, must be sentenced to at least 35 years in prison. For younger offenders, the minimum sentence for the same crime is 25 years.
Current Pennsylvania law requires judges to sentence anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder — regardless of the offender's age — to life in prison without parole. Under that system, some 480 juvenile offenders are serving life sentences in Pennsylvania. That's the highest number of juvenile lifers in any state and about 20 percent of the population nationally.
Included among Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers is Robert Holbrook, now 38, who was convicted of first-degree murder as a 16-year-old. He was serving as a lookout for what he thought was a simple drug deal, his sister, Anita Colón, testified to Pennsylvania lawmakers in July.
“Instead, my brother found himself in the midst of a robbery. Although he desperately wanted to run once he realized what was happening, he was terrified of the drug dealer who ordered him to stay,” she said.
Last June, the Supreme Court said states must consider alternative sentences for juveniles, saying the mandatory schemes constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” that prevent judges from considering a juvenile's “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change.”
Pennsylvania is one of several states wrestling with how to respond to the ruling. Before the decision, 26 states had mandated life sentences for some juvenile offenders.
The Pennsylvania bill also seeks to keep some juvenile offenders out of traditional detention centers. The measure tells courts to use the “least restrictive intervention that is consistent with the protection of the community, the imposition of accountability for offenses committed and the rehabilitation, supervision and treatment needs of the child.”