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May 26, 2016

Here's how Philly will handle cases for juveniles sentenced to life without parole

A three-judge panel will make binding decisions, court officials say

Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January declared unconstitutional sentences of life without parole for those prosecuted as juveniles, nearly 300 inmates affected by the decision have wondered how Philadelphia would handle those cases. 

And while the city's district attorney isn't prepared to talk about how those cases will be dealt with, according to spokesman Cameron Kline, the Philadelphia judges responsible for ensuring justice in the cases explained the new guidelines for the process. 

On Tuesday, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which handles cases in Philadelphia, issued regulation that would create a framework for court officials to organize and address those cases. 

The need for such a procedure follows the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana that determined that jailing a child for life without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Children can still be sentenced to serve life without parole, but the ruling prescribes a hearing for an individual to have the opportunity to show that "their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption."

Every state – and every county – in the nation can determine their own process to handle such cases. Some counties have simply made any juvenile sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole. 

Philadelphia, the U.S. city with the highest percentage of juveniles sentenced to life without parole, will handle its nearly 300 cases differently, according to court officials. 

Working with various stakeholders, including representatives of the state and the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, court officials said several factors would be considered, including the offender's age at the time of the incident and the length of time the individual has spent behind bars since sentencing, according to Court of Common Pleas Administrative Judge Jacqueline F. Allen.

Here's how the binding decisions will be reached. 

Individuals sentenced to life without parole as juveniles will appear at a status conference before the district's homicide team leader, Common Pleas Court Judge Lillian Ransom. At the hearing, both the prosecution and the defense must present "a concise statement of the case" that includes the nature and extent of evidence sought, legal issues, number of witnesses and other relevant factors. 

Ransom would then schedule a resentencing hearing. 

She also would organize the cases by "event types," determining the complexity of each case and deciding whether it can be handled in a resentencing hearing scheduled within 120 days of the status hearing or require a more detailed hearing beyond 120 days. 

If a hearing shows that an individual can prove "good cause shown" for resentencing, then such a hearing will be scheduled no more than 240 days after the initial status hearing. 

Then, each case would be heard by a panel comprising Ransom and Common Pleas judges Barbara A. McDermott and Jeffrey P. Minehart. 

"The panel’s decisions will be binding," said Allen told PhillyVoice in an email. 

Allen said she and Supervising Judge Leon Tucker selected the three judges on the panel based on their individual backgrounds and experience. 

The regulation won't go into effect until 30 days after it is printed in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The first cases could appear for initial status conferences by mid-July, Allen said.