A bill on Gov. Tom Corbett's desk will give Pennsylvania more options than life in prison when sentencing juveniles in murder cases.
In response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have approved a bill with a new set of sentencing options.
As spelled out in the Senate Bill 850, defendants 14 years old and younger would serve at least 20 years for second-degree convictions and at least 25 years for first-degree convictions. Offenders who are 15 to 17 years old would face minimum sentences of 25 and 35 years, respectively.
Judges would also have the option of imposing a life sentence for juveniles who commit murder, but based on the high court's 5-4 ruling in June, that life sentence cannot be automatic.
While county judges are prohibited from commenting on specific pending legislation, the idea of having options has drawn the attention of local judges.
"Any bill that provides judges with flexibility is worthy of consideration," said Blair County Judge Hiram Carpenter. "Judges typically don't like mandatory sentences ... because we are to be the decision makers."
For any sentencing, fellow judge Timothy Sullivan said, a court should consider all relevant factors "including but not limited to the gravity of the offense as it relates to the impact on the life of the victim and on the community, the applicable sentencing guidelines and the rehabilitative needs of the defendant."
When the Supreme Court made its 5-to-4 ruling in late June, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said the automatic life-without-parole sentence for juveniles takes discretion out of the hands of the judge, depriving the judge of the ability to consider mitigating circumstances that juveniles can't control, such as their home life or their capacity to change.
Kagan said a state is not required to guarantee a juvenile's freedom, but "must provide some meaningful opportunity to obtain release, based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle said she appreciated "that the legislature is clarifying what the sentencing options would be for judges in Pennsylvania in these kind of cases, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling."
Opponents to the proposed legislation have said the bill needs more work and that decade-long sentences for child defendants will still amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Rep. Curtis Thomas, D.-Philadelphia, offered that challenge in the House, but he was unsuccessful.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.