Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders Abolished: The Fight Continues

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By Robert Saleem Holbrook and Dr. Kristi Brian

The movements struggling for the abolition of prisons received a much needed glimpse of optimism on June 25, 2012 when the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs finally struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. This long-awaited first step towards the elimination of one of the most unforgiving tendencies of mass imprisonment has created a hopeful stir. Yet in Pennsylvania, which has more juvenile lifers than any other state, much has yet to be determined. There still exists a vocal and aggressive opposition comprised of vengeance-driven right wing victim rights advocates and “law and order” politicians who are afraid of being labeled soft on criminals. As a result, they vow to maintain the sentence in spirit by attempting to deny the retroactive application of the ruling to the hundreds of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania and seek to enact draconian sentences that would require juveniles to serve a minimum of 40 years in prison before being considered for parole.

Furthermore, while states can no longer have mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, in practice states still have the option to impose life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders so long as an alternative sentencing scheme exists. Thus, the sentence in its entirety has not been abolished. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is hearing arguments on September 12, 2012 to determine if and how the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs applies to juvenile lifers sentenced to life without parole and what is the appropriate remedy for juvenile lifers to have their sentences reviewed for resentencing.

The United States Supreme Court’s decision should be more impactful for juveniles found guilty of 1st or 2nd degree murder in Pennsylvania in the future. It is hoped that with allowing an alternative sentence other than life without parole, judges and juries will indeed be less inclined to sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole.

There is no doubt that the decision is a victory for prisoners and our advocates and allies; however, there is much more work that remains to be done to ensure that the Court’s ruling is applied retroactively and that the state does not adopt a draconian sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders convicted of first and second degree murder that essentially guarantees they will die in prison by virtue of a de facto life without parole sentence. If anyone wants to stay updated on this issue, please email the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth at pacfsy@gmail.com and request to be placed on their update list.

The struggle continues,

Robert Saleem Holbrook and Dr. Kristi Brian