By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Justice Intern
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court handed down a ruling last week that affects how the commonwealth’s juveniles are sentenced when major crimes are committed. The ruling directly affects juvenile lifers, a segment of the prison population whose sentences have been closely scrutinized in the courts.
Roughly 2,500 individuals in the United States are serving life without parole for crimes that occurred when they were children (JLWOP) . Pennsylvania has the highest concentration of individuals serving these harsh sentences, housing 514 total — roughly one-fifth of all JWLOP inmates nationwide. Three other states — Michigan, Louisiana, and California — hold about one-fifth, combined.
The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed juvenile sentencing several times.
The decision in Roper v. Simmons in 2005 determined that the death penalty for children is unconstitutional. Juveniles have decreased culpability and increased ability to reform, the court found. SCOTUS’s 2011 decision in Graham v. Florida took that same reasoning and banned life without parole for children involved in non-homicide cases. A year later, in Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS decided that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a child amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is thus prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In 2016, SCOTUS ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applies retroactively, meaning that juveniles sentenced before 2012 could apply for re-sentencing. It also created a standard for sentencing, arguing that life sentences should only be given to juveniles who demonstrate “irreparable corruption.”
That brings us to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruling last week — and to Qu’eed Batts.
Batts was 14 years old when he shot two teenagers, killing one. In 2007, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole, which he appealed following Miller, with the help of his Easton, Pa.-based attorney, Philip Lauer. Batts’ appeal was answered with another life sentence, again without the chance of parole. He appealed again.
On June 26, more than ten years after his original sentencing, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
Batts’ argument relied on the language of the Miller decision, which required that life-without-parole sentences be given to only the “the rarest of juvenile offenders.” Imposing a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile should require “competent evidence that the defendant will forever be incorrigible, without any hope for rehabilitation,” wrote Justice Christine Donohue in her opinion. In the future, prosecutors will need to “prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible and thus is unable to be rehabilitated.” That didn’t happen in Batts’ case.
So what will this mean?
For Batts, it means he will be re-sentenced again. (His attorney, Lauer, told the Post-Gazette: “I’m on page 45 [of Judge Donohue’s opinion], and I can’t stop smiling.”)
For the other 514 juvenile lifers that still have active cases within Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, it means that judges will have to consider youth at the time of the crime, in combination with their potential to change. Optimistically, this will lead to fairer, more just sentences.
“By recognizing a presumption against the sentence and placing the burden on the Commonwealth to establish permanent incorrigibility on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court has properly erected an exceedingly high bar for the state to overcome,” wrote Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of Juvenile Law Center, in a statement reacting to the Batts ruling. “Such sentences should indeed be rare in Pennsylvania as we now move ahead.”
For Pennsylvania as a whole, the ruling means the Keystone State will come closer to following the national trend of limiting or eliminating life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. In a joint statement, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Amistad Law Project pointed out that the Batts decision falls short in a lot of ways. Indeed, 19 states and the District of Columbia have zero JLWOP cases, and 17 of those have declared JLWOP sentences illegal.
“The trend among our sister states,” wrote Justice Donohue, “is to outlaw entirely the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders.”
We think Pennsylvania should follow that trend.
IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)
“At a moment where individuals, advocates and elected officials from across the political spectrum are interested in reducing incarceration, there are concrete things to do. Here are a few ideas: Ending stop and frisk and other police practices that disproportionately channel poor people and people of color into the city’s jails. Holding officers involved in the shooting deaths of our brothers and sisters fully accountable. Eliminating the unjust pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains. Addressing overcrowding and other human rights abuses by keeping people at home while they await trial. Increasing access to alternatives to incarceration that address harm, violence, and loss in a way that will lead to real transformation and healing. Supporting the ACLU’s effort to reduce the jail and prison population by 50 percent over the next several years. We need sentencing reform, bail reform, parole reform and prosecutorial reform.”
- The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit: A victory for Richard Fields and Amanda Geraci (and ACLU-PA’s Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hopper)
“Every Circuit Court of Appeals to address this issue (First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh) has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police activity in public…. Today we join this growing consensus. Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public.”
- The Intercept: “How Sanctuary Cities Can Protect Undocumented Immigrants From ICE Data Mining”
“One key conduit of information from local police to ICE is through joint federal-local task forces intended to combat crime or terrorism. Police officers in each of the listed ‘sanctuary cities’ that choose to participate are assigned to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Though the JTTFs are run by regional offices of the FBI, agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations are assigned to all 104 such task forces across the country, and ICE’s own website boasts that the agency ‘is the largest federal contributor to the JTTF.’ Furthermore, police in several cities (Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco) have assigned other officers to participate as deputized federal agents in task forces run by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. The task forces are intended to focus on gun violence, gang crimes, and organized crime. According to ICE’s own documentation, local police officers who are deputized as federal agents cannot enforce immigration law. However, HSI receives access to local case files through these task forces, and the task force agreements do not bar HSI agents from detaining people for immigration violations during their joint operations with local police. Nor do the agreements place restrictions on ICE’s access to data maintained by local police or other municipal agencies.”
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