Juvenile offenders who were previously sentenced to mandatory life without parole may now seek resentencing by a trial court. A January 2016 decision by the Supreme Court in Montgomery v Louisiana now allows juvenile offenders to appeal their life without parole sentence. This ruling is particularly contentious here in Pennsylvania as current PA law does not allow those sentenced to Life in Prison to be eligible for parole. Moving forward, Pennsylvania will need to catch up to the latest Supreme Court ruling, and must now handle the hundreds of petitions for relief filed by juvenile lifers.
This decision opens up relief for thousands of prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed before they turned 18. In Pennsylvania alone, there are nearly 500 juvenile lifers, with more than half of those cases coming out of Philadelphia. The state of Pennsylvania has the largest number of juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole within the entire country, and with over 400 potential cases to resentence, the effect in Pennsylvania is significant. It is expected that individual resentencing hearings will be required in many cases, which will continue to stretch the Pennsylvania Justice System.
The decision in Montgomery v Louisiana stems from a case decided by the Supreme Court in 2012. Miller v. Alabama held that it was unconstitutional for juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole. After the decision in Miller v Alabama the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in Commonwealth v Cunningham that Miller would not be applied retroactively. This meant that all those sentenced in Pennsylvania prior to the decision in Miller v Alabamawould not have their cases reviewed and their life sentences would stand. However, the US Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v Louisiana now conclusively states that the judgment in Miller should be applied to cases predating the 2012 ruling. In short, all prisoners convicted of life sentences as minors are now eligible to petition for parole.
Additionally, this case is a continuance of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions minimizing the harsh sentences imposed on juveniles. Marsha Levick, a Juvenile Law Center attorney who served as co-counsel on the Montgomery case said “It’s an unprecedented moment in criminal justice history in the United States and in Philadelphia in terms of the number of cases that require a serious second look.” Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Michigan are among the few states who still apply Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) Sentences and these three states make up the majority all JLWOP cases.
While this case may result in parole being awarded to juvenile lifers, both prosecutors and defenders alike in Pennsylvania are cognizant of the current state law prohibiting parole for those sentenced to life in prison. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole has confirmed that they can not currently parole anyone who is serving a life sentence under state law. The board has said they are waiting for further instructions from the courts or from the legislature about how to process the affected cases. Many in Pennsylvania, including judges, public defenders, prosecutors and prison officials are trying to interpret the latest Supreme Court ruling, sometimes acting in conflicting and contradictory ways.
Nationwide, this ruling can affect up to 2,300 cases. Over the last year, the Department of Corrections has been holding sessions with juvenile lifers to ensure they have completed the appropriate steps to apply for parole if they become eligible. For those inmates who have completed the steps needed to apply for parole, over 200 petitions have been filed in Pennsylvania from these juvenile lifers seeking relief under Montgomery v Louisiana. While Pennsylvania works to enforce this latest Supreme Court ruling those sitting in jail wait for a new chance at freedom.
If you have a loved one who is facing criminal charges, contact the experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys at Rehmeyer & Allatt today. We know how to provide quality representation and to passionately advocate for our clients. Call us today for a free consultation and case review at 814-343-9860.