The “violent offender” conversation in criminal justice reform

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Here is a short conversation between criminal justice reporters Albert Samaha from Buzzfeed News and Alysia Santo from the Marshall Project and Jarrett Murphy of City Limits on the future of criminal justice reform. The point is made that “non-violent drug offenders” are the low-hanging fruit of criminal justice reform. They are the easiest to release. But a difficult conversation, one that will test the limits of or reform, is looming about releasing men and women incarcerated for violent crimes.

Reforming juvenile life without parole sentences, we think, will help open that conversation up. Have a look:


Juvenile lifers will get new sentences, but what law applies?

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481 juvenile lifers across Pennsylvania—300 of them from Philadelphia alone—will receive new sentencing hearings following the 2016 Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. But the courts are now grappling to determine what sentencing law applies to this unprecedented ruling, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 11.

After the Miller v. Alabama decision in 2012, the state created new sentencing procedures for juveniles convicted of murder: 25 years to life for those younger than 15, and 35 to life for those 15 to 17. But that law excluded anyone whose sentence was final before the Miller decision.

Now the law must find a way to determine resentencing guidelines that fit the juvenile lifers to be given a second chance. And making new laws is not so easy.

“The problem is, even if we pass something, it would be ex post facto,” or retroactive, said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, in the Inquirer. “I don’t think the legislature can do anything at this point, because it could be unconstitutional what we do.”

Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, said no new law is needed. The state should move to resentence juveniles to 20 to 40 years in prison, which is the punishment for third-degree murder, Levick said to the Inquirer.

A chance at parole in Chester County, Penna.

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Attorneys and judges around Pennsylvania are still thinking through the ramifications of the Jan. 25 Supreme Court ruling Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made the ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth retroactive. There appears to be some clarity in at least on jurisdiction.

A Chester County judge recently resentenced Earl Rice Jr. to a sentence of “time served with the possibility of parole.” Rice has been in prison for 42 years and may soon appear before the parole board.

Rice Jr. was convicted of first degree murder in September 1973. According to court records, he and another youth snatched a woman’s purse as she walked down a sidewalk. As the purse was pulled from her hands, the woman reportedly spun around and fell, hitting her head on the sidewalk. She later died from the injuries.

The case is one of the first in Pennsylvania to move toward a remedy under Montgomery. Pennsylvania has some 500 juvenile lifers, more than any state. Below is the order from court docket in Rice Jr.’s case. We’ll keep an eye on this case.

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Bill banning life without parole for kids makes it out of committee

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Photo from The Deseret News.

Xavier McElrath-Bey, a stalwart advocate for juvenile justice, testified before the Utah House of Representatives’ House Judiciary Committee to push for HB405, which would ban life without parole sentences for juveniles, the Deseret News reported on Feb. 28. The bill was advanced after a unanimous vote.

“The truth is I was not a monster. I was very visibly a child,” McElrath-Bey said. “I am not the same person I was when I was 13 years old.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Lowry Snow, told the committee that life without parole is essentially a death sentence. “It is a protracted death sentence, but nevertheless it is,” Lowry saud.

McElrath-Bey works for the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth. He pleaded guilty to the murder of another youth and served 13 years in prison. He is living proof of the change that young people can achieve.