The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. Addressing only that segment of the prison population will not go far enough to deal with Pennsylvania’s problems. It still permits mandatory life sentences in cases in which offenders may be older, but biologically less developed that their juvenile counterparts. This is no less cruel or inhumane than for those under 18 and by no means addresses the financial burden all mandatory life sentences place upon society.
Medical and Social Science findings have determined, and the U.S. Supreme Court has concurred, that brains are not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-twenties, with humans typically experiencing the greatest growth in responsibility in their early twenties. Our legislator already agreed by reflecting so in our alcohol laws. It is unconscionable to indiscriminately dole out life sentences without parole to less than fully mentally mature citizens.
Furthermore, at issue is the growing financial burden incurred from current sentencing laws. Because of mandatory life sentences without parole, the number of geriatric prisoners is rising at an untenable rate. In 1980, our prisons had 370 prisoners over age 50, now there are over 8,000 in 2010. The average cost of housing all prisoners was close to $31,000 per year, but the average cost was approximately $67,000 for elderly prisoners. With a budget exceeding $1.5 Billion and prison population over 51,000, it costs us over $500,000,000, or 1/3 of the prison budget, to warehouse the 16% who are likely to reoffend. This unjustified and ever increasing burden to the tax base is happening at the same time our schools are receiving less money to educate our children and other budget cuts are being made statewide.
Therefore, we as taxpayers, urge our Legislature to balance social and economic interests and do away with mandatory life sentences. Trust our judicial system with flexible, humane, and affordable sentencing, allowing them to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances. We pray you work diligently to alleviate the dilemma our aging prison population will place upon society and the tax base.
PCRA Ground One: Mandatory life-without-parole terms for individuals over the age of 17 but below age 25 violate the 8th Amendment, art. 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as art. 1 & 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The Miler/Jackson Court built upon its earlier decisions in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. (2010). In these cases, the Court validated the findings of science and social science. Each set of findings evidenced that while the 17 year-old brain is fairly developed, it is not until age 21 that youth experience tremendous gains in emotional maturity, impulse control and decision-making that will continue to occur into early adulthood. These findings further evidenced that this biological process is not typically complete until a “child” reaches his or her mid-twenties.
s a traditional matter, the Court has been careful not to dictate to the states’ proper purpose of punishment. See e.g. Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 25 (2003). According to the Court, a state may choose to impose a punishment for purposes of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, or any combination thereof. Id. A punishment that serves no penological purpose, however, inflicts needless pain and suffering in violation of the Eighth Amendment, art. 5, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as art. I & 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. As the Court reasoned in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584,592 (1977), “a punishment is `excessive’ and unconstitutional if it..makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment, and hence nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering,”
Whether life-without-parole serves a legitimate purpose – and comports with the dignity of man – therefore rests at least in part on whether it serves a legitimate penological purpose. Life-without-parole terms for individuals over the age of 17, but under the age of 25, do not appropriately serve any of the purposes of punishment. That the Miller/Jackson Court did not consider this issue is of no moment. The issue was not before the Court; what was before the Court was science and social science findings that the Court ultimately validated.
PCRA Ground Two: A new trial with a “life-qualified” jury must be awarded because Petitioner’s age changes the possible punishment for first/second degree murder.
The Courts in Roper, Graham, Miller, and Jackson, all agreed that: 1) juveniles are different than adults, and 2) a mandatory life-without-parole term is irrevocable and the harshest term that can be imposed. Extending the Roper and Graham rules, the Miller/Jackson Court proceeded to the conclusion that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory life-without-parole terms for offenders under age 18.
The pre and post Roper/Graham scientific findings validated by the Miller/Jackson Court immortalizes the Eighth amendment ban. The concession reached by the Courts in these cases is that a “child’s” biological process is not typically complete until he or she reaches his or her mid-twenties.