That’s what was on the minds of about 35 people – juvenile advocates and families of life inmates sentenced as juveniles -- who gathered Friday at the historic Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out mandatory life sentences without parole for people who killed when they were under the age of 18. Juvenile offenders, the high court ruled, can be rehabilitated and deserve the chance to prove it while in prison.
Advocates for “teen lifers” say the ruling will likely mean new penalty hearings for about 2,000 to 2,500 nationwide and, for the first time, hope for a life outside prison walls. Pennsylvania has about 480 juvenile offenders serving life without parole -- about 350 from Philadelphia – and is the leader among states with this punishment.
But beyond Monday's news bulletin, the questions were many and answers few for those attending the meeting of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
“This is a hard way to celebrate but this is really pretty amazing,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief legal counsel at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court prior to Monday’s ruling.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted but what we got was life-changing,” Levick told the group.
Would the 480 teen lifers get parole hearings? Not sure, because Pennsylvania law does not allow for the state parole board to consider the cases of people serving life without parole for murder. Would the inmates get new sentencing hearings and what kind of sentences would judges impose? Likely, but no one knows how judges will handle the resentencings. There would also likely be delays and opposition by victims-rights groups, some legislators and the association of state prosecutors, Levick added.
There was much to be done and coalition leaders began taking the first steps to organize lobbying legislators for parole reforms, and the families of the teen lifers to put a “human face” on the inmates.
There was one looming deadline, Levick said. Each of Pennsylvania’s 480 inmates serving life for crimes committed when they were juveniles has just 60 days from Monday to file court notices that their cases must be reexamined in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Pennsylvania gives us a very narrow window,” Levick said. “For everybody, it’s necessary to at least get that filed correctly within the 60-day period.”