Juvenile Life without ParoleDecember 27, 2014
The US Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama that changed the rules on Juvenile Life without Parole (JLWOP). There is a misconception that Miller outlawed JLWOP. Instead, Miller said that, “judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.” This means that a judge can still sentence a juvenile to life without parole so long as the statute governing the sentencing allows the judge to consider not sentencing the defendant to life. The judge must have a choice.
JLWOP in Pennsylvania only applies in Murder 1 and Murder 2 cases.
After Miller v. Alabama, the Pennsylvania General Assembly changed the juvenile murder sentencing to the following,
§ 1102.1. Sentence of persons under the age of 18 for murder, murder of an unborn child and murder of a law enforcement officer.
(a) First degree murder.–A person who has been convicted after June 24, 2012, of a murder of the first degree, first degree murder of an unborn child or murder of a law enforcement officer of the first degree and who was under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the offense shall be sentenced as follows:
(1) A person who at the time of the commission of the offense was 15 years of age or older shall be sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without parole, or a term of imprisonment, the minimum of which shall be at least 35 years to life.
(2) A person who at the time of the commission of the offense was under 15 years of age shall be sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without parole, or a term of imprisonment, the minimum of which shall be at least 25 years to life.
(b) Notice.–Reasonable notice to the defendant of the Commonwealth’s intention to seek a sentence of life imprisonment without parole under subsection (a) shall be provided after conviction and before sentencing
(c) Second degree murder.–A person who has been convicted after June 24, 2012, of a murder of the second degree, second degree murder of an unborn child or murder of a law enforcement officer of the second degree and who was under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the offense shall be sentenced as follows:
(1) A person who at the time of the commission of the offense was 15 years of age or older shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment the minimum of which shall be at least 30 years to life.
(2) A person who at the time of the commission of the offense was under 15 years of age shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment the minimum of which shall be at least 20 years to life.
(d) Findings.–In determining whether to impose a sentence of life without parole under subsection (a), the court shall consider and make findings on the record regarding the following:
(1) The impact of the offense on each victim, including oral and written victim impact statements made or submitted by family members of the victim detailing the physical, psychological and economic effects of the crime on the victim and the victim’s family. A victim impact statement may include comment on the sentence of the defendant.
(2) The impact of the offense on the community.
(3) The threat to the safety of the public or any individual posed by the defendant.
(4) The nature and circumstances of the offense committed by the defendant.
(5) The degree of the defendant’s culpability.
(6) Guidelines for sentencing and resentencing adopted by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.
(7) Age-related characteristics of the defendant, including:(i) Age.(ii) Mental capacity.(iii) Maturity.(iv) The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the defendant.(v) The nature and extent of any prior delinquent or criminal history, including the success or failure of any previous attempts by the court to rehabilitate the defendant.(vi) Probation or institutional reports.(vii) Other relevant factors.
(e) Minimum sentence.–Nothing under this section shall prevent the sentencing court from imposing a minimum sentence greater than that provided in this section. Sentencing guidelines promulgated by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing may not supersede the mandatory minimum sentences provided under this section.
(f) Appeal by Commonwealth.–If a sentencing court refuses to apply this section where applicable, the Commonwealth shall have the right to appellate review of the action of the sentencing court. The appellate court shall vacate the sentence and remand the case to the sentencing court for imposition of a sentence in accordance with this section if it finds that the sentence was imposed in violation of this section.
This means that if the defendant was 15, 16 or 17 at the time of murder, if the prosecutor is seeking imposition of a sentence of life without parole, the judge must conduct a hearing and consider the age, mental capacity, maturity, criminal sophistication, nature of prior contacts with the criminal system, pre-sentence reports, and other relevant factors.
Accordingly, the new statute follows the ruling in Miller v. Alabama, and probably holds constitutional muster. The General Assembly only adopted the minimum requirements of the Supreme Court of the United States. The idea of Miller v. Alabama was to tell prosecutors and judges that juveniles have chance of being reformed because their brains are not fully developed like adults and that penal systems have a far greater chance of reforming a juveniles then an adults. Further, at the time of Miller v. Alabama, Pennsylvania had the most inmates in jail serving juvenile life without parole in the United States. While the Supreme Court did not make the new rules retroactive, nothing was stopping the Pennsylvania General Assembly from addressing the same issue. Had Pennsylvania want to step-out from their current status has the harshest state in the country regarding JLWOP, the PA General Assembly could have simply made juvenile murder cases 35 to life and made all inmates’ sentences in Pennsylvania serving JLWOP 35 to life, and eliminated all future litigation on this issue.
Recently, in Montgomery County, this issue was in the news in Commonwealth v. Stahley, where Stahely was convicted of Murder 1 by stabbing his ex-girlfriend in a park with a surgical style knife over 70 times. The alleged motive was if Stahley couldn’t have her no one could.
Stahley was 16 at the time of the killing, and did go through with the hearing on whether he should get 35 to life or life without parole. At the hearing he called a forensic physiologist who testified Stahley had a low IQ, attention deficit disorder, couldn’t deal with rejection, and was immature. No information was publicly released about Stahley’s prior contacts with the system and his adjustment thereafter. Even with this mitigation, the judge still found that Stahley should be sentenced to life without parole.