With its landmark ruling in June banning mandatory lifetime jail sentences for teenage killers, the U.S. Supreme Court stood up for the principle that those acting out of immaturity — even if guilty of the most heinous crimes — might one day pay their debt to society in full.
But the high court stopped short of banning life-without-parole sentences, leaving it up to states to determine whether lifetime sentences remain an option.
Judging from the initial flurry of states rewriting their sentencing rules — as Pennsylvania did last week — the trend is toward preserving the right to throw away the key for some young offenders who take a life.
That’s the approach adopted by Harrisburg lawmakers, who in addition to keeping life without parole as an option set minimum jail terms for other young killers.
The sentences will range from 20 to 35 years, depending upon a defendant’s age and whether it was a first- or second-degree conviction.
The rules should provide a glimmer of hope for rehabilitation by those who commit the worst crimes as teens.
While they were urged to take more time in crafting the sentencing guidelines, lawmakers resolved an uncertain situation. And to their credit, they didn’t give in to the temptation to end-run the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling as done in Iowa, where the governor recently commuted juvenile lifers’ sentences to a 60-year minimum.
That said, Pennsylvania so far has missed a chance to take the more progressive stance on dealing with juveniles who commit murder — by banning lifetime sentences altogether.
The growing body of evidence that teenage offenders are influenced by “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, points inevitably to one right course: Don’t condemn any juvenile defendant to a certain life behind bars.
By the same sound reasoning, the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for minors as well as defendants found to be mentally retarded.
With old sentencing rules that required life without parole as the minimum punishment for both first- and second-degree murders, Pennsylvania prisons filled up with juvenile killers — a number estimated to have grown to more than 400.
That’s the nation’s largest concentration of juvenile lifers. So there’s a good case to be made that the state has an even higher obligation to eliminate lifetime sentences for juveniles as a means of redressing wrongs stretching back decades.
As it happens, those inmates serving lifetime terms could trigger further reform yet. The state Supreme Court is considering a compelling plea to reduce these lifetime sentences, as only seems right given the highest court’s ruling. In doing so, there’s no reason that the state’s top court couldn’t step up with its own determination that no teen should face a life-without-parole jail term. That would serve justice best.