On Jan. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded a previous decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana: now, judges are not required to sentence juveniles to mandatory life without parole for homicide. The legislation will affect about 500 inmates within Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia accounts for 9 percent of those affected nationwide.
Bradley Bridge, a prominent public defender in Philadelphia, is among those who are celebrating. He has been working for 10 years with groups like the Defender Association of Philadelphia to get the legislation passed, he said.
“I represented one,” Bridge said when asked why he supports the cause to give these convicts a second chance.
Since 1995, Philadelphia has had a law in place which requires juvenile suspects who were involved in a murder or wielded a murder weapon to be tried as adults. Philadelphia is among five counties in the country which house the most juvenile offenders who are given life without parole.
John Killeen works for Mary Mother of Captives, an organization that helps an accused person and his or her families cope with the legal process and potential incarceration. He supports the Supreme Court decision, because an appeal acknowledges these prisoners are all individuals.
“The Supreme Court is having hearings for them all, weighing them on a one-by-one basis not based on what they did, but what they have done since being in prison,” Killeen said.
There are still many issues that need to be worked out with the legislation, said Sara Jacobsen, an associate professor in the Beasley School of Law and director of Trial Advocacy. She said the legislation only applies to convicts with life sentences: which means people given a defined number of years—not technically a “life” sentence, but still enough years to ensure life in prison—will possibly not be given this chance at freedom.
“What the advocates have said and what the Supreme Court is now agreeing with, is that kids are different from adults,” Jacobson said. “They are still developing as people.”
Bridge added the judicial system won’t be able to handle the increase in cases due to the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We don’t have 300 lawyers, we don’t have 300 judges, we don’t have 300 experts,” he said.
Killeen said identifying those most apologetic for their crimes is crucial.
“Trying to see into someone’s heart or eyes is difficult,” he said. “There are guys who sit back and are penitent. They will look you in the eyes. They are sorry for the other person and then for themselves. … These are the people in prison who teach other people how to read, and tutor them.”
Victim advocate groups are attempting to have their voices heard as well following the court’s decision.
Jennifer Storm is the Victim Advocate of the Commonwealth for Pennsylvania. She is the voice for the victims, and helps their families through the legal process.
“What this means for all of these people is ripping open their scars,” Storm said of victims’ families. “Bringing them back to a local courthouse for a resentencing hearing where they will have to provide a victim impact statement, and then, if they are resentenced to anything but life, the victim’s family has to come before the parole board as well.”
Lila Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.