U.S. states are considering whether there are better ways to treat the worst juvenile offenders, rather than locking them up in adult prisons for life.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf held a hearing Monday to find out why Pennsylvania, the nation's sixth-most populous state, leads the nation in the number of juveniles sent to prison for life.
The inquiry could help determine whether changes in state law are necessary, said Greenleaf, a Republican.
Supporters of juveniles sentenced to life in prison for murder, as well as the families of victims murdered by juveniles, packed the committee room Monday. Testimony included two grown men who have lived in prison since their teens, both appealing through video hookup for a second chance to prove themselves in society.
"We're not asking that killers be set free," Robert G. Schwartz, the executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said in an interview after he testified. "We're asking that every juvenile lifer be given a second chance."
Pennsylvania does not allow parole for juveniles convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to the adult prison system, nor does it set a minimum age for juveniles to be tried for murder.
In addition, juveniles convicted of second-degree murder - a killing committed during the commission of certain other crimes - or of being an accessory to a murder they had no intention of committing can be convicted as adults and sentenced to life without parole.
The reconsideration comes a decade or two after a wave of get-tough-on-crime laws swept through state legislatures and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it is unconstitutionally cruel to execute juveniles.
Sarah Hammond of the National Conference of State Legislatures said Colorado has led the way, creating a clemency board to hear cases of juveniles convicted as adults, among other changes to laws that guaranteed life in prison for juveniles.
Other states have considered raising the age teenagers are prosecuted as adults in light of research that indicates teens can't control their impulses. Connecticut plans to raise its age from 16 to 18 in 2010.
Lawmakers in Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York and North Carolina debated legislation to raise their ages in the past two years, but the measures all failed, according a study released in February by a Wisconsin legislative research bureau.
Pennsylvania has 350 inmates who entered prison when they were under the age of 17, according to the state Corrections Department.
However, the department does not count inmates who committed the crime as a juvenile, but entered prison as an adult. Including those inmates, the total is 444, according to a a May report by Human Rights Watch - well above second-place Louisiana with 334 and third-place Michigan with 316 and nearly one-fifth of the nation's total.
Schwartz and other juvenile advocates told Greenleaf that Pennsylvania's high number of juvenile lifers can be blamed on a handful of reasons, including the lack of parole and the absence of a minimum age at which youths can be tried as adults.
Greenleaf also contends that dozens of the juvenile lifers were convicted of second-degree murder, but never possessed a weapon and were not present when the murder occurred.
Edward McCann, the chief of the homicide unit for the Philadelphia district attorney's office, pointed out that Pennsylvania provides some recourse to juvenile lifers.
Each juvenile murder defendant can ask the judge to send the case to juvenile court, and convicted murderers can ask the governor and Board of Pardons to shorten their sentence, he said.
While McCann acknowledged that Pennsylvania has little middle ground between juvenile court and life sentences for juvenile murderers, he also warned against going back and shortening the life sentences of those inmates.
Doing so would be unfair to the families of victims who trusted the justice system, he said.
"Families of murder victims deserve the right to rely on the finality of judgments of sentences in Pennsylvania," McCann said. "These family members are victims, too."
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