July 07, 2012 | Posted in Criminal Defense

Life may no longer mean life for juveniles in Erie and throughout Pennsylvania who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the U. S. Supreme Court recently held in a case stemming from an appeal filed on behalf of a juvenile in Alabama. This ruling affects 12 state prisoners serving life sentences from Erie and Crawford Counties, according to a story in the Erie Times News.

The decision does not affect inmates who received those sentences for murders they committed as adults, i.e., while they were 18 years of age and older. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 20, 2012 in the case of Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences, without parole, for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision is expected to be applied retroactively, which means that for life prisoners who committed 1st or 2nd degree murder when they were juveniles but tried for their crimes as adults, at least the possibility of parole must be made available to them. However, according to the news article, there remains some uncertainty about just how this might be implemented.

The reasoning set forth by the Supreme Court in Miller is essentially this: The Eighth Amendment makes it unlawful to impose cruel and unusual punishment and also protects people from excessive punishment. Justice requires that punishment should be "graduated and proportioned" to both the person and the crime. And children are "constitutionally different" from adults and for purposes of sentencing are less deserving of the harshest punishment because (1) children lack the same maturity (2) children are more vulnerable to negative influences and have less control over their own environment (they are not able, like adults, to get away from "crime-producing settings") and (3) a child's character is not as "well formed" and is "less fixed (or in other words there still may be hope that a child can change for the better). And a mandatory sentence prevents the sentencer from taking into account these things when the youth of the offender is not allowed to be considered when imposing a sentence. (Citations to legal autority have been omitted to make this easier for non-lawyers to read.)

It remains to be seen whether life prisoners in Pennsylvania, to whom the recent ruling applies, must apply for parole with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation & Parole directly or whether they must file petitions with the court to request a sentencing modification, or both. For now, the Parole Board hasn't indicated, according to the story.

If you would like a copy of the 25 page opinion issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, or have any questions about juvenile charges in Erie, Warren or Meadville, Pennsylvania, call Erie Juvenile Lawyer Tim George (888) 748-9909.