Last Thursday, Gov. Tom Corbett signed five bills into law that would significantly affect the criminal justice system of Pennsylvania, among them a measure that gives Commonwealth judges more options when sentencing juveniles convicted of murder.
The proposed law, Senate Bill 850, which was originally introduced by State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, means that a juvenile 14-years-old or younger would serve 25 years for a first degree murder conviction and 20 years for a second degree homicide conviction. Defendants 15 to 17-years-old would face 25 or 35 years.
The bill, which Corbett signed into law last week, was Pennsylvania’s response to an earlier Supreme Court ruling in June that declared mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s ruling came after decades of research confirming that the frontal lobe of the juvenile brain — the part that controls reasoning, is undeveloped.
But, as significant a step as this legislation appears to be, some opponents say it ignores the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision. Pennsylvania missed an opportunity to transform the harshest sentencing scheme in the world into one that is fair, proportional, and consistent with the latest knowledge of adolescent development, said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
“The Prison Society testified at an earlier legislative hearing on this issue and proposed that the state establish a sentence of 10 years to life for all juveniles,” DiMascio said. “The thinking was that a decade would enable the individual to reach maturity and to show his or her readiness for release. Perhaps the minimum should be 15 years but certainly not more than 20. Most likely few, if any, would get approved at their minimum by the Parole Board. Nevertheless, the state would have control over them for life and could confine them until there was clear and convincing evidence that the person could be released without jeopardizing the community. Some will say a minimum of 10 years, or even 20 years, is not enough time. Others will say life is not enough. But this is not a test to see how tough we can be. The way we develop our justice system is a measure of our civility. We will be judged by the value we put on redemption, not retribution.”
On June 25, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Miller v. Alabama, the landmark case that addressed the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole. The court decided that these sentences were unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of murder’s committed when they were under 18-years-old. Right now Pennsylvania is one of the leading states in the nation with more than 400 juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole following conviction of either first or second degree murder.
Justice Elena Kagan said such sentencing is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
"Mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments',” Kagan wrote. “A judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.
Under the new law, a juvenile defendant age 15 to 17 would receive a minimum of 35 years to life for a first degree murder conviction. The court would impose a sentence of 25 years to life for a defendant age 14 or younger. In cases of second degree murder or felony murder, where there is no evidence of intent to commit murder, such as the cases of Stacey Torrance and Robert Holbrook, the court impose mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years to life for 15-17 year olds, and 20 to life for defendants under 14.
Robert Holbrook was 16 when he was involved in an incident that escalated to murder. On Jan. 21, 1990, Holbrook was allegedly selling drugs for George Padilla. That night, Holbrook, Padilla and others agreed to rob Elsie Olmeda. They forced their way into her home and Olmeda was dragged upstairs. Holbrook stayed downstairs with the victim’s child while Padilla and the co-conspirators allegedly assaulted Olmeda and demanded money. After they found the cash Padilla and the co-conspirators decided to murder Olmeda to prevent her from identifying them. They allegedly tried strangling and then stabbing her. Later, Holbrook got an extension cord and threw it up to Padilla. Olmeda's hands and feet were tied and then she was repeatedly strangled and stabbed. Holbrook heard what was happening but didn’t go upstairs. Olmeda died from multiple stab wounds and strangulation.
During the trial, Holbrook pleaded guilty to third degree murder but the court found his actions showed intent to murder, even though he was the least involved.
Stacey Torrance was 14-years-old when he became involved in a robbery that led to murder in 1998.
Torrance was prosecuted for the murder of Alexander Porter, a young man who was Torrance’s girlfriend’s brother. Before this he had never been involved in any criminal activity. Two adults, Henry Daniels, his cousin, and Kevin Pelzer allegedly got Torrance to agree to participate in robbing Porter, whose family was allegedly involved in drug dealing and it was believed that they had a lot of money. Allegedly, Pelzer and Daniels murdered Porter, killing him with a .25 caliber handgun. Torrance had no prior knowledge of the murder and was not a participant. But he was convicted of felony murder or murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to life without parole.