Hearing to examine life terms for minors

Chris Togneri
| Monday, Sept. 22, 2008

State lawmakers today will explore why Pennsylvania sends more juveniles to life in prison without parole than any other state or country.

"I've read the reports on juvenile lifers, and what caught my attention is the fact that Pennsylvania has more than any other in the nation, by far," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It's time to hear all sides of this."

According to "Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison," a study released last year by the University of San Francisco's Center for Law and Global Justice, 433 Pennsylvania inmates were sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed as minors. Nearly one-fifth of the country's 2,381 juvenile lifers were sentenced in Pennsylvania.

The United States is the only country in the world that sends juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, said Michelle Leighton, co-author of the study.

"We are not up with international standards," Leighton said last week. "There are better ways to address penalties for children."

Greenleaf, whose committee will hold a hearing on the issue today in Harrisburg, said it is too soon to say if state sentencing laws will be changed.

"We want to get all the facts so we can make an intelligent decision about what, if anything, can be done," he said.

Bobbi Jamriska, 36, of Shaler said she worries the hearing could result in the release of a man who 15 years ago murdered her pregnant, 15-year-old sister in the West End.

Maurice Bailey of Crafton Heights was 16 when he killed Kristina Grill, 15, of Sheraden. Grill, who was stabbed 11 times in her neck and beaten severely, was 5 months pregnant.

"His sentence was totally appropriate in my opinion," Jamriska said. "If he ever gets out, under any circumstance, it nullifies that she ever existed. She doesn't get a second chance."

Attempts to reach Bailey's family were not successful.

Jamriska will testify today. She said that to revisit sentencing guidelines will open old wounds for her and others.

"Any time they touch that law, it can set off a maelstrom of appeals, and quite frankly this person really doesn't deserve a second look, let alone a second chance," she said.

The Department of Corrections says Pennsylvania has 356 juvenile lifers, which it defines as those sentenced to life without parole before turning 18. Neither Leighton nor the corrections department could explain the discrepancy between that number and the study's, but either total exceeds the number of juvenile lifers in Louisiana, which is second on the list with 317, followed by Michigan (306), Florida (273) and California (227).

"Frankly, as an American, and as a Pennsylvanian, I'd be disturbed by this," Leighton said. "It can't be that Pennsylvania's kids are worse than all other kids in the rest of the world."

Greenleaf said he will focus on second-degree murder convictions, because in many cases the juvenile did not use a weapon, but was present when a murder occurred.

People on both sides of the issue will testify.

Opponents of lifetime sentences for juveniles say the practice is inhumane and violates international treaties. The brain does not fully develop until the early 20s, meaning an adult serving a life sentence is a different person from the youth who committed the crime, they argue.

"The idea that there is no possibility of redemption ever is, frankly, immoral," Leighton said. "To say there is no possibility ever that these children could be redeemed seems to be a message society does not believe in."

Two juvenile lifers will testify via video feed from their prison cells.

On the other side, law enforcement officials and victims' relatives will speak in support of Pennsylvania's sentencing standards.

"From my perspective, as a survivor who had to go through this, and to see pictures with his footprints on her stomach, at no point should there come a time in my life or his when they consider changing the law," Jamriska said. "This isn't some poor kid. This is a monster. He's been sentenced and dealt with appropriately."

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