When the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to send a teenage offender to prison for life without the possibility of parole, the court added a loophole: If the juvenile’s crime reflects “irreparable corruption,” then prosecutors can ask that such a defendant die behind bars.
A debate is now raging about how “irreparable corruption” should be determined — and who has the responsibility of proving — or disproving — it.
The ramifications for Philadelphia couldn’t be more dire. The controversy comes as the city is in the midst of scheduling new sentencing hearings for the more than 300 prisoners whose first- or second-degree murder convictions resulted in life sentences without parole.
On Monday, Bradley Bridge with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and Marsha Levick with the Juvenile Law Center argued before a panel of three state judges that prosecutors should have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that an inmate is impossible to rehabilitate before asking for a life sentence without parole.
“Absent that finding, there can never be a life-max sentence” for juveniles, Bridge told the judges.
And, before a decision can be made, a child-development expert or forensic psychologist should have to testify to the jury about a teenager’s immature judgment and capacity for change, Levick added.
State Supreme Courts in Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri and Iowa have put the onus on prosecutors to prove whether a prisoner is irredeemable and forever unfit for society.
Yet Hugh Burns, who leads the District Attorney’s Appeals Unit, rejected that reading of the high court’s directive. Instead, Burns argued, it’s up to the inmate to show he or she is not irreparably corrupt and that rehabilitation is possible.
“The defendant gets a chance to show that he’s in the protected class,” said Burns, referring to inmates who qualify for new sentencing and possible release. “The court put the burden on the defendant to show they are in the protected class, which would make the defendant immune to life without parole.”
Bridge dismissed that logic.
“The commonwealth has asserted that virtually every juvenile is in the class unless they prove the negative that they don’t belong in that class,” he said. “Now the reason we know that that’s wrong is that it’s impossible to prove a negative, and we all know that.”
Change of heart at DA office?
Court officials in Philadelphia are setting up hearings for the 300 inmates who were sent away as teenagers according to how long they have been incarcerated; those who have served the most time will get the first hearings. Some of the city’s juvenile lifers have spent decades locked up.
So far, prosecutors have offered 96 plea deals, and 74 of those inmates were made immediately eligible to be released, according to the district attorney’s records. Others, however, have not yet been made eligible for release or are fighting their offers.
In three cases, District Attorney Seth William’s office is seeking to resentence inmates to life without parole, something Williams’ critics say contradicts previous statements he made indicating that his office would not condemn teen offenders to die in prison.
The decision on those three cases came as a shock to Bridge, and it made him think that prosecutors may seek additional hardline punishments for the convicted killers he is representing.
“If the past is any guide, not only might there be more in the remaining two-thirds, but the commonwealth can certainty change their mind and decide, ‘We didn’t think it was a life-without-parole case, but now we do,'” Bridge said after Monday’s hearing.
Bridge and Levick also worry that prosecutors might offer punishments that amount to a “de facto” life sentence, condemning someone so long that it may not be a technical life sentence but the prisoner would inevitably die of natural causes while behind bars.
But prosecutors said they neither have made that kind of offer so far, nor do they have any plans to do so.
Whatever the panel of judges decides, the question of how to establish a way to test a prisoner’s ability re-enter society may be finally decided by a Pennsylvania Appeals Court.
“The issue is forward-looking,” Bridge told the judges. “It’s not about whether the defendants were bad today, or last month, but whether they will be bad in the future.”