Juvenile Justice Part 3 – Supreme Court Rulings

In 1988-89, the US Supreme Court struck the death penalty for children 15 or younger. In 1989 they decided the death penalty is still possible for 16 and 17 year-olds.

In 2005, the Supreme Court struck all juvenile death sentences which included the 16 and 17 year-olds who committed homicides. Less than half the states imposed death sentences on youth and those that did, very few performed executions of youth. There were 72 nationwide with 3 in Pennsylvania. This ruling also included striking the death penalty for any other crimes less serious than homicide that a juvenile may have been sentenced for.

In 2010, the Supreme Court struck all life without parole sentences for juveniles. More than half the states allowed for the possibility of that sentence but not many imposed it. Nationwide there were 140 with most of them in Florida and Louisiana.

In 2012, the Supreme Court struck ‘mandatory’ life without parole in homicide cases. An amazing 2500 kids were serving life without parole sentences for homicides committed under 18 which is a huge rise from 2010.

Life without parole is still possible for juveniles but it can’t be mandatory when there’s a juvenile homicide. The subtle difference is when a juvenile was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence he had no opportunity for hearing mitigation, no opportunity to present witnesses, information, or involvement, and childhood experience and trauma experienced as a child were all irrelevant.

Most people thought the 2012 US Supreme Court ruling would be applied retroactively to everyone sentenced as a juvenile and currently serving time under the mandatory life in prison. But, no. The issue of retro-activity was litigated across 19 state supreme courts, PA included. PA was one of the minority state supreme courts that found the 2012 federal case to not be retroactive.

PA houses more juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences than any other state in the country. Over 500 juveniles were charged with either 1st or 2nd degree homicide convictions. It is the largest population of child offenders condemned to die in prison in any single jurisdiction in the world. 16 of those 500 individuals had no benefit of the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision.

In 2016 the US Supreme Court did find that the change in sentencing required that it be applied retroactively.

All of the juvenile lifers have to be re-sentenced. Their re-sentencing can range from being immediately released to serving new sentences which may still be very long. But, they have to include the option for parole at some point in the future.