In a 5 to 4 decision announced this week, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down laws in 28 states — Pennsylvania among them — that automatically sentence youthful killers to life terms behind bars, calling juvenile life without parole “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The decision follows years of debate on the issue, and the high court’s ruling applies to all inmates under 18 who are serving life sentences. The ruling doesn’t automatically empty cell blocks, nor does it hinder any judge from sentencing a teenage murderer to life. It does, however, leave the important rehabilitative tool of parole on the table.
“I’m ecstatic about this, not only as a defense attorney, but as an attorney in the state that sentences more juveniles to life in prison than any other state in the nation, and any other jurisdiction on earth. Many of these defendants weren’t even present when the murders were committed and didn’t even know what was being done,” said defense attorney and activist Michael Coard. “In 2005, the high court said that executing kids is unconstitutional. We don’t let kids vote, drink or drive or get married because they are impulsive, irrational and sometimes downright silly. The justices applied the same logic to this decision. Now, I’m not a bleeding heart liberal who wants to slap a killer on the wrists just because they’re young. My concern is the idea that there is no possibility of parole. What if after 20, 30, or 40 years in prison the defendant gets his GED, maybe helps the officers during a prison riot, educates himself or becomes a minister or imam? Our intent should always be rehabilitation, and if you take away, even the possibility of parole, what does that inmate have to lose? Parole is the carrot dangling in front of them; it’s an incentive for good behavior.”
Justice Elena Kagan said in a statement that the decision was consistent with the court’s previous acknowledgement that children lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. By nature, children are more susceptible to peer pressure and outside influences and they are more open to being rehabilitated. The court’s opinion does not say whether its ruling applies only to future sentences, or whether new hearings would be granted to the more than 2,000 prisoners across the country who were are serving life terms for murders. The decision doesn’t end life sentences for youthful defendants but it does require that judges must consider their age along with the facts of their crimes.
According to figures from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the state has almost 500 inmates serving life without parole who either are juveniles or were juveniles at the time of their sentencing.
“I think this is a significant decision and that SCOTUS got it right. This is significant and timely, especially for Pennsylvania, which incarcerates the largest number of juveniles serving life sentences in the country. Sentencing young people automatically to life without parole is unconstitutional,” said prominent civil rights attorney David Rudovsky. “The question in all of this is what kind of reviews will be considered and the review process because of course, every case is different and the appropriateness of the punishment to the circumstances must be considered. It’s not clear yet how all of that will work out. And their prison records have to be reviewed as well.”
One of the most controversial cases that surfaced in Philadelphia was that of Stacey Torrance. Torrance was 14 in 1988 when he was arrested for the murder of Alexander Porter, a young man who was his girlfriend's brother. He was about to enter the tenth grade at a Philadelphia high school under a magnet program for students who excelled academically.
Torrance was convicted of second degree murder (felony murder in Pennsylvania) and sentenced to life without parole. He had no juvenile record, and this was his first offense. He was charged directly in adult court and never had a juvenile transfer hearing. According to court documents and police investigative reports, Torrance agreed to participate in a robbery with two adults, Henry Daniels, who was his cousin, and Kevin Pelzer. The victim was Alexander Porter. They reportedly believed Porter had a lot of money because it was allegedly common knowledge that his family was involved in drug dealing. The plan involved coercing Porter to give over the keys to his apartment so that Daniels and Pelzer could rob it.
Torrance agreed to participate in the robbery scheme, but was not present at Porter’s fatal shooting, nor was there evidence presented at trial that even suggested he knew Daniels and Pelzer were going to murder Porter. Torrance has been serving a life sentence.
“The large number of individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole represents the dismantling of the founding principles of the juvenile justice system,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project in a press release. “These youth were failed by systems intended to protect children. Many juveniles sentenced to life without parole first suffer from extreme socioeconomic disadvantage, and are then sentenced to an extreme punishment deemed unacceptable in any other nation.”