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January 25, 2016

Supreme Court's ruling on juveniles' life sentences could impact hundreds of Pa. cases

Juvenile Law Center attorney: Inmates convicted as teenagers will get chance to have cases reviewed

With a decision announced by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, thousands of individuals sentenced to life in prison while juveniles could have their sentences re-examined or be immediately paroled. 

That's because, with the court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court makes retroactive what it had determined in an earlier decision – that life sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.

The decision affects between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals currently serving life sentences in U.S. prisons nationwide, and it gives a chance at parole or to have a new sentencing hearing. 

About 524 Pennsylvania inmates could be affected by Monday's Supreme Court decision, according to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center. Pennsylvania has more people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles than any state in the country.

The Juvenile Law Center is a national organization based in Philadelphia that describes itself as an advocate for children in the child welfare and justice systems. 

Levick noted that in Pennsylvania there was a mandatory sentence of life without parole for anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder. And, she said, in cases of second-degree murder – which accounts for about 35 percent of the prisoners serving life in the state – people might be sitting in prison for their entire lives for a crime they had very little to do with. 

"They get pulled in, but they aren't the shooter," she said. "Some were lookouts, some drove the car, some may have been involved in a violent way, but they didn't deliver the final blow." 

The Supreme Court's precedent setting decision arises from the case of Henry Montgomery, who had been jailed in Louisiana for more than 50 years after he killed a sheriff's deputy in 1963. He was 17 years old at the time.

By a vote of 6-3, the justices voted to extend a ruling from 2012 that struck down automatic life terms with no chance of parole for juvenile offenders. That ruling came in the case of Miller v. Alabama. 

Levick, who served as co-counsel on the case, said this ruling will allow individuals who may have spent many decades in prison to have their cases reviewed, then possibly be granted parole and returned into society. 

She pointed to the case of Joe Ligon, who was arrested and convicted for the murders of two men in South Philly in 1953. Ligon was 15 years old at the time.  

"He's been in since the '50s," she said. "That's the extreme, but there are people [who] have been serving these sentences for decades." 

Just how each state will react to Monday's ruling, Levick said, is yet to be seen. 

"The remedy may differ across the states, but the impact is clear," she said. "This doesn't mean that they'll all get out, but it does mean that they will get a second look." 

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office issued a statement Monday saying the office would begin conducting resentencing hearings in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana.

"We have already conducted resentencing hearings for many defendants who were on appeal when Miller was decided. There will now be additional resentencing [hearings] in the older cases covered by today’s ruling," the D.A.'s office said. "If a defendant is given a new sentence less than life, he will be eligible for consideration by the parole board at some point, depending on the length of the new sentence."

The D.A.'s Office also noted that "murders committed by juveniles after October 2012 are governed by a new statute that provides for a graduated sentence depending on the age of the killer and the degree of the murder."