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U.S Supreme Court may alter juveniles' life sentences

| Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Civil-rights advocates are cautiously optimistic that the days of sentencing juveniles to life in prison with no chance of parole could soon end.

Their hope lies with the U.S. Supreme Court, which said this month it would review two cases from Florida in which juvenile offenders claim their life sentences — one for rape, the other for robbery — are unconstitutional.

Legal experts cautioned the court could rule in a number of ways, and said some outcomes might not change Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines.

But they added that if the court rules life sentences for juveniles are inhumane, the effect on Pennsylvania — which has about 450 juvenile lifers, more than any other state — could be huge.

"The impact here would be significant, profound and immediate," said Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia who opposes sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole. "We would go back into court rapidly, seek to have all of the juvenile life sentences ruled unconstitutional, and have them re-sentenced."

The United States and Israel are the only countries that sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole, according to the 2008 report "Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison," a study released by the University of San Francisco's Center for Law and Global Justice. In the United States there were 2,381 juvenile lifers; Israel had 7.

"It's my hope the Supreme Court will see the practice for the repugnancy that it is and will do something to correct what is an inhumane practice," Bridge said.

Not everyone agrees.

Officer Dan O'Hara, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said changing the rules and granting juvenile lifers regular parole reviews would cause additional pain for victims' families.

"When there is a very serious crime committed and the person is old enough to recognize the difference between right and wrong, sometimes they have to suffer the consequences," he said. "But when you constantly review something like this, you have the victims and families constantly being further victimized. Once the decision has been made, the decision is done, and I don't know why it should be constantly reviewed."

Justices could rule in various ways, according to legal experts.

For example, the Supreme Court could uphold the sentences, or deliver an opinion specific to non-lethal crimes. All of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers were convicted for first- or second-degree murder, Bridge said.

Another possible outcome: The court could set an age limit determining when such sentences are inhumane, said Douglas A. Berman, law professor at Ohio State University. In the Florida cases, one defendant was 13 when he raped a 72-year-old woman in Pensacola; the other was 17 when he was charged with participating in a series of robberies.

"They took these cases to strike down at least one of the sentences," Berman said. "Maybe not, but that's my inclination."

Berman said the number of issues to be considered might make it difficult for the Supreme Court to make a decision.

But pressure is mounting at home and abroad to end juvenile life sentences.

In a report made public last week, the United Nations independent expert on racism urged the United States to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

In California, legislation introduced last week would allow courts to reduce sentences of juvenile lifers and make them eligible for parole after 25 years.

In Harrisburg, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf is working on legislation that would give judges sentencing discretion, a spokesman said Tuesday. The law mandates that a first- or second-degree murder conviction brings an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Legal experts believe Justice Anthony Kennedy could be key in resolving the Florida cases.

In 2005, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to abolish the death penalty for defendants under age 18, noting that it violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Kennedy wrote the majority opinion:

"To the extent the juvenile death penalty might have residual deterrent effect, it is worth noting that the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person," he wrote.

Michael Sturley, professor and director of the Supreme Court Clinic at the University of Texas law school, said of Kennedy: "If he believes what he said in (2005), then he should find both (life sentences for juveniles) to be unconstitutional. But there are those who say death is different. Justice Kennedy will tell us."

Berman said the number of issues to be considered puts other justices in play, too.

"They have lots of room to operate without feeling confined by precedent," Berman said.

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