PA Leads the Nation in Juveniles Who’ll Spend Their Entire Lives in Prison

SCOTUS has ruled Philadelphian Ian Cunningham's sentence is cruel and unusual. So why is he—and the state's nearly 460 other juvenile lifers—still serving it?

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences for offenders under the age of 18 violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because they fail to take into account the unique characteristics of young offenders, including their “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

The Miller decision is one of several key steps taken by the high court since the 1980s that draw a legal distinction between children who commit crimes and adult offenders. Unfortunately, the justices didn’t go far enough. By accepting the legitimacy of life without parole for juveniles as long as they are not automatically applied, the court stopped short of banning the sentence, meaning the U.S. will retain the distinction of being the only developed nation in the world that puts children in jail until they die.

The U.S. is one of only two nations out of 193 U.N. member states that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child—which bans life imprisonment for minors. The other is Somalia.

Even worse, SCOTUS left it up to the states to determine if the new ruling should be retroactively applied to lifers who received their mandatory sentences as juveniles before the 2012 decision was handed down.

Since Miller, nearly a dozen states—including Pennsylvania—have reformed their sentencing laws to comply with the decision.  Last fall, Gov. Corbett signed SB 850—which sets a new minimum sentence of 35 years in prison for juveniles above the age of 15 convicted of first-degree murder. The sentencing range for convicted murderers who are under 14 is 25 years-to-life (which in Pennsylvania automatically means no option for parole.)

Yet the commonwealth has still not decided what to do with the roughly 460 inmates—more than any other state—who are currently locked up for the remainder of their lives for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday. As of today, the state Supreme Court has had exactly one year to make up its mind.  On Sept. 12, 2012, the court—then one justice short—heard oral arguments in the case of a Philadelphia man, Ian Cunningham, who was 17 when he shot and killed Daniel Delarge Jr. during a robbery attempt. Cunningham was found guilty of second degree murder by a jury in 2002 and received a mandatory sentence of life without parole on April 16, 2003.

Cunningham’s is the second Miller case to be considered by the Supreme Court—in March the justices sent 21-year-old Qu’eed Batts back to a lower court for re-sentencing for a murder he committed when he was 14; but it is the first that involves a defendant who has already exhausted his direct appeals.

The crux of the commonwealth’s argument in the case is that it doesn’t matter if sentencing Cunningham to life in prison is unconstitutional now, it wasn’t when his appeals ran out.

“This Court’s case law unequivocally establishes that a decision handed down after the offender’s judgments of sentence have become final on direct appeal is not a basis for relief on collateral review,” the state argued.

That may look good on paper, but in the eyes of justice, it’s hardly a compelling argument. For one thing, the bounds of cruelty are not constrained by temporality, nor are they mitigated by commonality of practice. Crucifixion may have been the accepted norm two millennia ago, but it was no less cruel than it would be today. Likewise, if automatically sentencing a 17-year-old to life in prison is cruel and unusual today, it was no less so in 2003. The Constitution became applicable the day it was ratified; the fact that it took the slow process of the law this long to finally get around to unequivocally stating that mandatory life for juveniles is unconstitutional doesn’t mean it wasn’t always so.

Last month, Cunngingham’s attorneys filed a petition with the Supreme Court to re-brief and re-argue his case in light of new developments. Pennsylvania recently swore in a seventh Supreme Court justice, and dozens of cases dealing with the fallout from Miller have been heard around the country —most of them favorable to defendants. Judges in Michigan, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and, most recently, Iowa have ruled that the Supreme Court decision applies retroactively to all prisoners serving such sentences.

As the PA Supreme Court move towards a resolution in the Cunningham case, it should carefully review this new evidence and let justice triumph over legalese.