Is 50 years a de facto life sentence? Pa. Supreme Court will decide

Pennsylvania’s high court will consider whether it’s unconstitutional to sentence certain juveniles to 50 years behind bars.

SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo)

SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo)

Is 50 years in prison a de facto life sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder? 

That narrow, but complex question is now in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court following a short appeal hearing in Philadelphia on Wednesday. 

The case centers on Michael Felder, who shot and killed Jarrett Green in 2009 after a two-on-two pick-up basketball game at Shepard Recreation Center in West Philadelphia. 

Felder was 17 years old at the time of Green’s murder. He was later given life in prison without the possibility of parole, which was the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder convictions in Pennsylvania at the time, regardless of the defendant’s age.

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That changed in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles were unconstitutional because they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan.

Then, in 2016, the nation’s high court made that decision retroactive to those sentenced before 2012.

In Pennsylvania, the landmark decision meant more than 525 state inmates who had been convicted as juveniles — including more than 300 from Philadelphia — were eligible for resentencing hearings.

A trial court judge gave Felder 50 years to life, a sentence his lawyers say still constitutes life in prison.

Felder would be nearly 70 years old if he gets out after five decades behind bars, which his lawyers argue would rob him of the opportunity to lead a “meaningful, quality life” upon release.

“The [U.S. Supreme Court] has given a definition to what meaningful means. It doesn’t mean that they come out when they’re on a gurney. It doesn’t mean that they come out with just a few years to live,” Marsha Levick, chief legal officer of Juvenile Law Center, said after Wednesday’s hearing.

Felder’s legal team maintains that 20 to 25 years in prison should be the maximum sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agrees that 50 years constitutes a life sentence, but argues that 40 years is a more appropriate bright line for these juveniles to become eligible for parole.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania rejected the case, saying the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 does not “directly apply” to Felder’s situation or other claims of de facto life sentences.

“We conclude that when a juvenile convicted of homicide has been subjected to a discretionary sentence that may approach but does not clearly exceed life expectancy, that sentence does not run afoul of [Miller v. Alabama] and therefore does not violate the Federal Constitution.” 

It could be months before the state’s high court renders a decision.

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