April 12, 2016
Taking a close look at the prosecutor dealing with Miller and Montgomery on the ground in Philly
Daniel Denvir has this intriguing piece in Salon about the resentencing of juvenile murderers in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. The full headline highlights its themes: "The unconstitutional outrage of juvenile life sentences: Why Philadelphia will be a case study for this criminal-justice reform: The city is faced with deciding what to do about 300 now-unconstitutional juvenile life sentences." Here is how it starts:
Children convicted of committing murder on Philadelphia’s violent streets long faced the prospect of receiving the harshest sentence short of death: life without parole. Today, the city has more juvenile offenders locked up for life than any other. It has been a grim and predictable cycle: Young black men mourned at premature funerals and their killers packed into state prisons with only the narrowest hope of ever leaving. And then the tough-on-crime pendulum began to swing back.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional, and in a January decision they made that ruling retroactive. And so Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has roughly 300 big decisions to make: How long will he seek to imprison the onetime juveniles, many now much older, who until recently were set to die behind bars?
States responded to the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision in a hodgepodge manner, including by abolishing juvenile life without parole entirely. In Pennsylvania, however, then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed a law that angered reform advocates for its harshness, changing the sentence for first-degree murder to 35 years to life for older juveniles, and 25 to life for younger ones. Those convicted of second-degree murder now face sentences of 20 or 30 years to life.
Critically, the law did not make the new sentences retroactive, leaving hundreds of Pennsylvania juvenile lifers in limbo. The Court’s January decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana means that prosecutors and judges throughout Pennsylvania will soon face a deluge of prisoners asking to be re-sentenced. In Philadelphia, advocates are concerned that Williams, who has taken a tough line in the past, will fight to keep many behind bars for a long time.
“The District Attorney has a pretty stark choice,” emails Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “He can either follow the very obvious trend away from sentencing juveniles to life without parole sentences, or he can swim against the tide and against the dictates of the Supreme Court and continue to seek such sentences.”
Williams’ office, which declined to comment for this story, must navigate the gap between the Supreme Court and the current state law. It’s unclear how he will proceed. The Supreme Court only barred mandatory life without parole sentences, so he could try to keep some locked up. The Court did make it clear, however, that life without parole sentences should only be applied in rare cases where an offender is “irreparably corrupted.”
Brad Bridge, a lead attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, criticized Williams’ past opposition to making Miller retroactive and says that he should move quickly to resolve the cases of those who have been incarcerated the longest. “Based upon [these court rulings,] we now must re-sentence over 300 juvenile lifers in Philadelphia,” emails Bridge. “Given that over 100 of these juvenile lifers have been incarcerated for over 30 years, we should quickly resolve those cases immediately by agreeing to release those who have done well in prison. It is only by prompt resolution of 100, and maybe 200, of these cases that the resources of the judiciary, prosecutor and defense can be properly focused on the 100 cases that cannot be resolved by agreement.”
Bridge and the Juvenile Law Center, a leading critic of juvenile life without parole, have called for the prisoners to be re-sentenced on third-degree murder, carrying a sentence of 20 to 40 years. But Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, has argued that the harsher sentences meted out by the state’s new law should be applied.
Seth Williams is the association’s vice president, and last fall conveyed his opposition to re-sentencing, telling WHYY that the prisoners “aren’t kids in fifth grade doing these things… We’re talking about killings. Not someone who stole someone’s laptop. We’re talking about the loss of life. And us having to look into the eyes of victims’ families, who want something done.”
April 12, 2016 at 09:28 AM | Permalink
Sounds like Williams has the right approach to me--why cave to the demands of the defense lawyers? These people are killers--that SCOTUS twisted the law to hook them up doesn't mean that everyone else has to follow suit.
And the prisons should be keeping detailed files on the lifers. Any infraction should mean no parole.
Posted by: federalist | Apr 12, 2016 9:55:53 AM