PA Juvenile Offenders May Receive Sentence of Life Without Parole

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a recent decision (Commonwealth v. Batts) failed to extend additional Constitutional protections to juvenile offenders, beyond what is already required by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court found that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Prior to the Miller decision, under the sentencing scheme in Pennsylvania, and many other states across the county, certain crimes carried mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.  If a juvenile was tried as an adult and convicted of a crime that carried a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole, the sentencing judge had no discretion to sentence the juvenile to anything other than life without parole. In Miller, the Court found that while a judge could still order life without parole for a juvenile, the judge would have to first consider factors prior to imposing a sentence, and that the judge may award something less that life without parole. The factors to be considered are the defendant’s age, level of maturity, family involvement, home environment, circumstances of the offense, the extent of the juvenile’s involvement in the crime, the impact of family and peer pressures, the juvenile’s ability to negotiate with police of prosecutors, and the possibility of rehabilitation.

In response to the Miller decision, the Pennsylvania Legislature amended its sentencing code in October of this past year, to change the mandatory life without parole to a discretionary sentence for juvenile offenders.  18 Pa.C.S.A. § 1102.1.  When determining the appropriate sentence, the statute lists seven factors, including the catch-all factor of any other relevant factor.

A judge may consider two possibilities when sentencing a juvenile under the age of fifteen for first degree murder.  The defendant may be sentenced to either life without parole, or a term of imprisonment not less than twenty-five years.  A judge may consider two possibilities when sentencing a juvenile over the age of fifteen for first degree murder.  The defendant may be sentenced to life without parole, or to a term of imprisonment not less than thirty-five years.  A defendant convicted of second degree murder, if under the age of fifteen, is to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not less than twenty years to life.  If over the age of fifteen, the defendant is to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not less than thirty years to life.

In Commonwealth v. Batts, the defendant was only fourteen years old when he shot and killed a man as part of a gang initiation.  The defendant was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.  The defendant urged the Court to find that life without parole is unconstitutional for an individual who was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed.  The Court rejected this argument and issued an opinion that was consistent with the Miller decision.  The Court remanded the case so that the trial court would have the opportunity to consider mitigating factors before sentencing the defendant.