November 30, 2012

Pennsylvania Dumps Juvenile Life Sentences After Supreme Court Ruling
-- After the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, Pennsylvania is reforming sentencing for juveniles convicted of murder. --

    November 30, 2012 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to impose mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile criminal defendants, even in cases where juveniles are convicted of homicide.

The Supreme Court's ruling was based, in large part, on scientific research that demonstrated that teenagers' brains are not as fully developed as adults'. As such, the court thought it would be "cruel and unusual punishment" to impose life sentences for juvenile crimes committed by people who did not have fully-functioning reasoning powers.

The ruling hit Pennsylvania harder than nearly any other state. Pennsylvania has more juveniles serving life sentences than any other state in the U.S. According to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is home to roughly 500 of the 2,500 people serving juvenile life sentences in the United States. Much of this has to do with the fact that juveniles charged with murder in Pennsylvania are almost always tried as adults.

New juvenile sentences

The outlook for juvenile defendants in Pennsylvania has changed dramatically, now that Gov. Tom Corbett has signed a juvenile sentencing reform bill into law.

Under the new sentencing scheme, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder for a crime committed while they were 14 years old or younger face sentences of 25 years to life in prison, while those between the ages of 15 and 17 face sentences of 35 years to life.

The penalties are slightly lower for second degree murder and felony murder. (Felony murder occurs when a person dies during the commission of a felony, regardless of whether there was intent to kill. Any person involved in the felony can be charged with felony murder, even if they were not actually involved in the killing.) In those cases, juveniles age 14 and younger will face sentences of 20 years to life, while those between the ages of 15 and 17 can be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

While the new sentencing structure does represent a significant change, many commentators have criticized the legislature and the governor for not going farther. One group, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, advocated in favor of a 10-year prison sentence, noting that parole boards would still have the authority to keep people in prison if they needed to be there.

Defending Pennsylvania juvenile offenses

In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, inmates serving life sentences for juvenile crimes in Pennsylvania were allowed to appeal their sentences. Many will have their terms of imprisonment reduced.

The new sentences will apply to all cases going forward. Even though the sentences are now lower, a juvenile conviction can have a significant disruption on a young person's life. If you or your child has been charged with a juvenile offense in Pennsylvania, it is important to take the allegations seriously. Talk to a criminal defense attorney with experience defending juveniles.

Article provided by Gover, Perry & Shore
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