Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] wrote a letter [text] to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett [official website] on Friday asking him to veto legislation [SB 850 text] which would maintain the sentence of life without parole as an option for child offenders. According to HRW, the bill would go against the spirit of the recent US Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which held [JURIST report] that mandatory life sentences for juveniles is unconstitutional. The bill applies a prison sentence of either life without the possibility of parole for juveniles or with the first parole hearing after 35 years for those over 15 and 25 years for those under 15. In the letter, HRW detailed several problems with the law:
It ignores that youth have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than older offenders. It ignores the racially disproportionate sentencing of youth in Pennsylvania. African American youth convicted of murder have been sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania at a much higher rate than white youth. It provides virtually zero public safety value at a very high cost. It will not provide a deterrent to future crime. Experts have shown that adolescents are unlikely to have the maturity and long-term rational thinking to be deterred by the prospect of a lengthy sentence.HRW also pointed to international obligations which bind Pennsylvania, and all other states, to treat juvenile offenders differently than adults and allow for rehabilitation.
HRW is asking Governor Corbett to veto the bill in light of the Miller decision which was handed down in June. There has been much commentary written on this issue both before and after [JURIST comments] the decision. The case was heard in conjunction with Jackson v. Hobbs [SCOTUSblog backgrounder]. During arguments before in Supreme Court regarding Miller, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, "What's the distinction between 14 and 15? ... How are we to know where to draw those lines?" Later, Miller's attorney called for 18 to be the minimum age needed to impose a life sentence, and pointed out that most of the jurisdictions that have considered the issue in a legislative context have adopted an age 18 minimum for mandatory life sentences. He offered that those jurisdictions that permitted the imposition of mandatory life-sentences did so through a regime that transferred juveniles to the adult criminal justice system where they are exposed to mandatory life sentences, not because of the express will of the people or their legislators to impose mandatory life sentences on juvenile offenders.