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April 30, 2020

"Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Tarika Daftary-Kapur and Tina Zottoli.  Here is its executive summary and key findings:


We examined the Philadelphia District Attorney Office’s approach to juvenile lifer resentencing, which began in 2017 under the administration of District Attorney Seth Williams and has continued under the administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner.  For cases resentenced as of December 31st, 2019, we describe similarities and differences between the Williams and Krasner administrations in decision making and sentence length reductions, and we report on the recidivism rate and estimated cost savings for Pennsylvania as a result of release.

In June 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without-parole (LWOP) sentences were unconstitutional for individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense (hereafter, juveniles).  In January 2016, SCOTUS, ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller applied retroactively.  Following Montgomery, individuals previously sentenced to mandatory LWOP as juveniles (hereafter, juvenile lifers) became eligible for resentencing.  Accordingly, in almost all such cases, the district attorney’s office makes an offer for a new sentence to the defendant, who is free to accept the offer or to have his new sentence decided by the judge.

At the time Miller was decided, Philadelphia had the largest number of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in the country (approximately 325).  Yet, they have been at the forefront of the resentencing process nationally, and at the time of this writing have only 10 juvenile-lifers left to re-sentence; the main reasons for delay being an open Post Conviction Relief Act petition or a pending appeal.

In Philadelphia, re-sentence offers are decided by The Juvenile Lifer Resentencing Committee ("The Lifer Committee"), which comprises 8 members of the executive staff at the District Attorney's Office.  The Lifer Committee’s decisions are based primarily on the consideration of case-summary memos prepared for the Committee by the Assistant District Attorney leading the resentencing process. Memos include information on the facts of the original case, demographic information on the victim and offender, mitigating information, the offenders’ prison adjustment (e.g.misconducts,rehabilitative programming), information on acceptance of responsibility and remorse, the victim’s family’s perspective on release, and reentry plans.

In January 2018, as the resentencing process was underway, Larry Krasner was sworn in as the District Attorney of Philadelphia after having run on a reform platform, ushering in dramatic change to the culture and policies of the District Attorney’s Office.  This change in administrations, during a crucial resentencing project, provided us with a unique opportunity to examine how the priorities and policies of the new administration have affected prosecutorial decision making.  Moreover, in light of the growing recognition that addressing the incarceration epidemic will necessitate re-evaluation of long-term prison sentences for individuals who were convicted of violent offenses, these outcome data have implications far beyond just those that pertain to the resentencing and release of juvenile lifers....


  • Pennsylvania has resentenced 88% of its juvenile lifers as compared to Michigan (52%) and Louisiana (approx. 15-22%); the three states in combination account for 2/3rd of all juvenile lifers in the United States.

  • Juvenile lifers can be considered low-impact releases in terms of risk posed to public safety.  At the time of our analyses, 269 lifers have been re-sentenced in Philadelphia and 174 have been released.  Six (3.5%) have been re-arrested.  Charges were dropped in four of the cases and two (1%) resulted in new convictions (one for Contempt and the other for Robbery in the Third Degree).  In comparison, nationally, an estimated 30% of individuals convicted of homicide offenses are rearrested within two years of release.

  • A subset of 38 cases were considered for resentencing by both the prior and current administrations.  The average sentence offered in these cases by the prior administration was 38.8 years; under Krasner, the average offer in these cases was 27.6 years.  Across all cases, this difference equates to an additional reduction of 394 years.

  • Overall, release of Philadelphia's juvenile lifers, to date, will result in an estimated minimum $9.5M savings in correctional costs for Pennsylvania over the first decade.

  • For both the Williams and Krasner administrations, Lifer Committee offers were explained by years in custody at time of resentencing, charge severity, whether the defendant was the primary actor, and whether a re-entry plan is in place.  There were some differences. While both administrations considered the maturity of the offender, the Williams administration relied on defendant age at the time of the offense and the level of planning, whereas the Krasner administration relied on a more holistic evaluation of the juvenile nature of the crime (e.g., involvement of an adult co-defendant, presence of peers, context in which the murder was committed).  Prior convictions also weighed more heavily under Krasner than the prior administration.

April 30, 2020 at 05:57 PM | Permalink


From the report: "We analyzed data from 174 releases and as of December 2019, only 3.45% (n=6) have been re-arrested. Four cases were dismissed. The other two cases resulted in convictions, one for Contempt for Violation of Order of Agreement and one for Robbery, yielding a reconviction rate of 1.14%. The remaining 168 individuals (96.5%) have been living in the community for an average of 21 months (as of December 2019) without any known law enforcement contacts. In comparison, among persons convicted of homicide offenses nationally, an estimated 30% are rearrested within two years of release, a rate that is 8.72 times higher than that of juvenile lifers released in Philadelphia."

It is not uncommon in many places, I do not know about Philly though, that pending charges are dismissed in lieu of serving a parole violation for the new criminal conduct. How many of the four dismissed cases did that occur? Also, note that the 168 other have been out for an average of 21 months. One, that is not very long to determine the success of this program. Two, it is common for these types of regimes to release the posterchildren of low risk offenders at first which will skew the numbers favorably early on. There is a reason that CA lifer parole system has such a low recidivism rate, because up until recently, only the ideal candidates were paroled (plus they were older). When this program, or any other, gets to those who are not ideal release candidates and allow for a longer look back window than two years, I suspect your going to see higher recidivism rates and easily more than double what we see now. Keep in mind, this study is attempting to provide a statistical justification for more releases, not just the success of those so far.

While unknown to be an actual factor in any of the 168 left, but I have personally seen here in California touting the "success" of Proposition 36, is that arrest/conviction does not capture true recidivism. Consider the released offender who commits a number of violent crimes, but ends up running from the police, crashing and dying. Because the offender was neither arrested, nor convicted, he was counted as a success of Proposition 36 (no arrest/conviction). These studies need to look beyond arrest/conviction for recidivism. Even one or two of those, because the numbers are so low, change the percentages by non-negligible numbers. How many of those 168 have warrants outstanding, how many are still alive? We don't know from this study. Then, of course, there is the reality that not all crimes are solved thus suppressing true recidivism.

Finally, the comparison to "homicide" offender recidivism is irrelevant and perhaps not even an apples to apples comparison as the study does not say that the homicide recidivism number they cite uses the same criteria for recidivism as the study. In my view the question is what is the true recidivism rate for this program, and is that acceptable? The study cites $9.5 million in corrections cost savings over 10 years. A single crime by a single released offender could wipe out that alleged cost savings. If we wait 10 years, maybe these researchers could tell us about the other side of the ledger.

Posted by: David | Apr 30, 2020 6:54:55 PM

I think the Miller case and its progeny are the dictionary definition of legal realism. In every previous “cruel and unusual punishment” case I’m aware of, (Kennedy v Louisiana, Roper v Simmons, Atkins v Virginia, Trope v Dulles) there really wasn’t much of a question that the person’s punishment was unusual. The only real question was if the person’s punishment was excessively cruel.

Yet in Miller there were 2,600 juvenile lifers, and that’s found to be an unusual punishment? Based on some theory that the legislatures accidentally proscribed mandatory life imprisonment sentences for juveniles?

Anyway, I’m not opposed to eventually allowing juvenile murderers out of prison. I just fail to see how it’s a constitutional right.

Philadelphia’s been one of the most lenient cities on juvenile lifers. The people being released in Philadelphia aren’t necessarily the lowest risk lifers.

And the rearrest rate includes arrests for parole violations.

However, it does seem pretty weird that their re-arrest rate is 1/8 the national re-arrest rate for released murderers nationally. It makes me wonder if Philadelphia’s not enforcing the parole rules on released juveniles.

Posted by: Ryan | May 31, 2020 5:53:25 PM

Ryan: do you think it fair to call something that happens once every 20 cases "unusual"? Here is federal data suggesting 50,000+ juvenile murderers in the many decades before Miller: https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/offenders/qa03105.asp?qaDate=2016.

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 3, 2020 9:41:05 AM

Eh, 2,600 is well outside any definition of unusual SCOTUS had set before. In Kennedy v Louisiana, for example, there were 2 people in the entire United States sitting on death row for child rape, and nobody in the US had actually been executed for a sex offense since 1964.

With that being said, the idea that 5% of juvenile murderers getting LWOP makes the punishment unusual is actually a better argument than what SCOTUS came up with instead. Which was the idea that since the statutes authorizing the transfer of juveniles to adult court and the statutes requiring mandatory LWOP for 1st degree murder convictions in adult court are in separate sections of the penal code, the legislatures were inadvertently imprisoning juveniles for life. See page 23. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-9646g2i8.pdf

Again, I'm not opposed to juvenile murderers being let out of prison after a minimum of 25 years. The SCOTUS opinion just strikes me as very shoddy legal reasoning.

Posted by: ryan | Jun 4, 2020 4:34:05 AM

I am not seeking to undermine your Miller criticisms/concerns, ryan, but I think it still important to note that SCOTUS was not making an express/direct "unusual" claim but rather was seeking to push back on the argument that the number of laws and number of JLWOP sentences precluded an Eighth Amendment ruling in the kids' favor. This discussion is against the backdrop of a jurisprudence that has (sometimes) focused on the number of laws/sentences as a key (but not conclusive) criteria in Eighth Amendment analysis. In that context, I think the Court is right to note that few laws have been passed that expressly focused on juve sentencing that seeks to mandate JLWOP, rather JLWOP results from the combination of laws treating kids as adults and then subjecting adults to JLWOP.

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 4, 2020 10:15:44 AM

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