Prosecutor group opposes shorter juvenile murder terms

Pennsylvania prosecutors and the state’s victim advocate are not happy with a proposal to lower mandatory minimums for juvenile murderers.

A new report, commissioned by the state Legislature, says reducing the automatic penalty will expand sentencing options so the court has more flexibility to consider which punishment is most appropriate for the defendant.

Lengthier sentences, including life without parole, would still be options.

In a dissent, the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association and the Office of the Victim’s Advocate say that the committee behind the report was “stacked with people with a strong bias for criminal defendants.”

Their main quarrel involves punishment for second-degree murder which refers to a murder committed during a felony, but not necessarily by the person who actually killed the victim. Accomplices are held equally culpable.

The report recommends reducing mandatory minimums for second-degree murder to 10 years  for juveniles 14 and younger and to 15 years for juveniles 15 and older. The maximum penalty would remain life without parole.

The current mandatory minimums (20 and 30 years, respectively) were set in 2012 after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed mandatory life without parole cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles.

The dissenters view lesser penalties as highly problematic:

The [committee’s] proposal to reduce murder mandatory sentences to 10 or 15 years both devalues the victim’s life and disrespects the surviving family members. Does the value of the victim’s life decrease because the murderer was 17 instead of 18? Does the victim’s family feel any less devastation because the murderer was 16 years old? The [committee] needs to stop focusing solely on the defendant’s “needs” and start focusing on the father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister whose death was caused by the juvenile defendant. The [committee’s] proposal callously ignores the victims of juvenile murderers.

Pennsylvania currently has 524 inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole, the report said, which is the most of any state in the nation. Before 2012, life without parole was the mandatory sentence for first- and second-degree murder (as it still is for adults).

While the committee wants to lower the minimum mandatory penalty, the sentence could be lengthened for several reasons, like if the defendant was carrying a deadly weapon. In other words, nothing says a defendant has to be released after 10 years; it’s up to the court to decide on the proper punishment.

Supporters of the change say the reduction is needed to give prosecutors and judges more flexibility.

According to the report:

No one, including the prosecutor, has the ability to deviate from these mandatory terms. When faced with facts that warrant a sentence of less than the mandatory, prosecutors may seek a conviction for a different charge, but that option is lost when a case goes to trial. This recommendation gives prosecutors the ability to return sentencing discretion to the court, in appropriate cases.

There would no longer be a need to reduce the charges to seek a sentence less than the mandatory minimum and such could be the case even after a bench trial or jury verdict.

The report includes arguments that juveniles are still developing their impulse control and decision-making brain functions. While an adolescent might make mature decisions when given time to reason, emotions and peer pressure can be major drivers of negative actions, according to the report.

In other words, if an inmate’s brain had been fully developed, the outcome could be different.

The dissenters think juveniles are mature enough to make decisions regarding life and death. Letting them out 10 to 15 years later would be “unleashing murderers at the height of their physical power back into society.”

The recommendations are only recommendations and can be adopted, revised or ignored by lawmakers at their discretion.

As for the inmates already serving life, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a case to decide if its ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles should apply to inmates sentenced before the decision. While many states thought it should, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided it did not.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.