State lawmakers tackle juvenile law overturn
HARRISBURG - With more juvenile lifers in prison than any other state, Pennsylvania is in the legal cross hairs now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that require juveniles convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The high court decision last June declared mandatory sentencing laws for these juveniles in Pennsylvania and 28 other states unconstitutional, because they violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Pennsylvania has 480 juvenile lifers behind bars. This accounts for nearly 20 percent of the nearly 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States.
Two men in Lackawanna County have the potential to be affected by the decision - Joseph Aulisio, convicted of shooting 8-year-old Cheryl Ziemba and her 4-year-old brother Christopher Ziemba with a 12-gauge shotgun in 1981 and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole; and Christian Kenyon, a Scranton street gang member convicted of participating in an execution shooting of Allen Fernandez on Snake Road in 2009, another shooting that left a man with debilitating injuries and a doughnut shop holdup, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus another 35.5 years to 71 years.
Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola said the law is unclear as to how courts would go about resentencing the convicted killers.
"There's got to be some guidance," he said. "It doesn't really give us guidance on what should be done."
State lawmakers are taking the first steps to consider what changes are needed in Pennsylvania's sentencing law to bring it in line with the court ruling. Both Senate and House lawmakers held hearings to take testimony during the summer.
One issue awaiting resolution is whether the court ruling will lead to retroactive parole hearings for the 480 juvenile lifers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has scheduled legal arguments Sept. 12 in Philadelphia on the issue.
As happened during the 1990s when the issue of justice for juvenile murderers was last at the forefront in Harrisburg, the debate over a successor law revolves around how juveniles should be treated differently from adults in the criminal justice system versus the rights of the victims of their crimes.
There's no age-appropriate justification for sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole, testified Lourdes Rosado, associate director for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last July.
"Juveniles convicted of murder are different from others sentenced to life terms because they are not fully formed adults at the time of the killing," added Rosado. "In the same way that we treat children differently in many other areas of the law because they are still developing, sentencing policy should allow for the possibility of rehabilitation."
The court ruling has had a traumatic impact on surviving family members of the victims of the juvenile murderers, said Carol Lavery, the state Victim Advocate.
"They were assured that in Pennsylvania, we have truth-in-sentencing and that life means life in this state," she added. "Victims who have learned of the potential release of the offender who murdered their loved one, talk of being taken back to the day when they learned of the death of their family member."
Ms. Lavery urged lawmakers not to change the current sentences of convicted juvenile murders.
Scranton Attorney Ernest D. Preate Jr. urged lawmakers at the Senate hearing to act promptly in the fall session to enact a replacement law.
The court ruling means trials of defendants under age 18 charged with homicide must be delayed until a new law is enacted, said Mr. Preate. Trial judges won't know how to instruct the jury.
"If the Legislature delays too long, 'speedy trial' rules may be offended," said Mr. Preate.
He said it's hard to believe the U.S. Supreme Court, aware of the 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide, would issue a ruling limited to a handful of cases.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling gives lawmakers some guidance in suggesting the replacement law should provide different options, he added.
Mr. Preate suggested passing a law giving the option of life without possibility of parole, or life with the possibility of parole after a 10, 15 or 20 years, or setting a maximum term of 10 or 20 years.
Two bills in the legislative hopper address aspects of this issue.
A bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, Willow Grove, would allow the possibility of parole for juveniles who have committed second degree murder. "My legislation is only intended to provide the optional sentence for offenders who were under 18 when the crime was committed, did not kill the victim, and who did not contemplate that the victim would be killed," he said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Joseph Preston, D-24, Pittsburgh, would offer the possibility of resentencing to juvenile offenders sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.
Katie Sullivan, Times-Shamrock staff writer, contributed to this report.