History of Juvenile Law
Pennsylvania and Beyond
By: Sean Ray
Qu’eed Batts, of Easton, Pa., has a second chance at freedom. His last try was in 2012.
In 2007, when Batts was only 14 years old, he had been pressured into killing two men to impress a gang, he said. Since then, he has been serving a sentence of life-in-prison without parole.
But the U.S. Supreme Court gave him a chance in 2012 when the court handed down its landmark Miller v. Alabama decision. It said juveniles could not be given mandatory life sentences without parole. In the wake of this decision, Batts successfully petitioned for a resentencing hearing under Northampton County Judge Michael Koury Jr. After five long years, a way out was in sight.
It was not to be. Judge Koury handed Batts the same sentence. While disappointing for Batts, the decision was not surprising. Pennsylvania had a history of being tough on juveniles. Batts was just the latest in a long list of the Keystone state’s legal slaps to those under age 18.
Pennsylvania has long maintained the nation’s highest population of juveniles sentenced to life in prison. In 2010, the state had 444 such prisoners, beating out its closest rival, Michigan, by 98 prisoners. Even states with larger populations, like California or Texas, failed to keep pace.
Now, however, that is all about to change. In the wake of another SCOTUS decision in January 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana, mandatory life sentences are not only unconstitutional for juveniles, but those who previously received the sentence must now undergo a resentencing hearing. Qu’eed Batts and hundreds of others now have a second chance at freedom, or at least, a shorter prison stay.
But how and why did Pennsylvania acquire this legacy of harsh punishment?
That tale begins with the 1989 SCOTUS case Stanford v. Kentucky. The moratorium on executions had been lifted only one year prior, leaving a lot of questions on the table. Stanford answered one of those: What was the minimum age at which one could be executed? The answer? 16 years old.
Now, many states set their own minimums higher than the one SCOTUS laid down. States like New York, Ohio and California went for 18. Some, like Texas, Florida and North Carolina opted for 17. Eleven states even banned executions all together.
Pennsylvania fit into none of those categories. Instead, the state set the absolute minimum it was allowed. Pennsylvania and 18 other states chose to allow executions at 16, taking lives of those the law did not consider adults.
Pennsylvania kept that practice until another court case forced another change in 2005. Roper v. Simmons declared the death penalty unconstitutional for all juveniles. But while Pennsylvania could no longer execute minors, it could still sentence them to life in prison, and it did so with gusto. The minimum sentence for first- and second-degree murder in Pennsylvania was a one-way trip to life imprisonment with no chance of seeing the outside world again, without exception.
Meanwhile, the federal government’s views on juveniles continued to become increasingly lenient. 2010’s Graham v. Florida made life imprisonment without parole unconstitutional for minors convicted of a nonviolent crime. Then came Miller v. Alabama.
In 2012, the same year Qu’eed Batts’ chance at a reduced sentence was rejected in state court, Gov. Tom Corbet signed Act 204, ending the mandatory life-without-parole minimum sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Instead, first-degree murderers could receive a minimum of 35 years if over the age of 15, 25 years if under. Second-degree murderers dropped down to 30 years if over 15, 20 if under.
This did not remove life imprisonment without parole as an option, however—something the act makes note of in its wording. Act 204 was one of the few times Pennsylvania took a step toward leniency for juveniles.
In fact, in a 2013 Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case known as Commonwealth v. Cunningham, Pennsylvania rejected the notion that Miller v. Alabama applied retroactively, something SCOTUS would disagree with four years later.
Now, in the wake of Montgomery v. Louisiana, Pennsylvania finds itself having to resentence all its juvenile lifers. At time of writing, 79 lifers have been resentenced, with 20 set free, according to the State Department of Corrections website.
But even with the resentencing hearings now taking place, there is no telling how Pennsylvania’s cases will turn out. Life in prison without parole for juveniles remains an option, just not a mandatory one.
Duquesne Law Professor Wes Oliver believes that, while the resentencing hearings mandated by Montgomery may help those currently in prison, it might not do as much good for future juvenile defendants.
Specifically, Oliver said that while it’s easy to say a juvenile should not serve life imprisonment 30 or 40 years after their crime, it is much harder when emotions around the crime, which is most often murder, are still raw.
“You’re going to see more positive results on the resentencing than on the prospective sentencing,” he said. “Life in prison without the possibility of parole is still a possibility.”