HARRISBURG — A senior state lawmaker wants to know why Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of juveniles sent to prison for life.
Supporters of juveniles sentenced to life in prison for murder, as well as the families of victims murdered by juveniles, packed a Capitol hearing called by the Senate’s Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf.
The inquiry could help determine whether changes in state law are necessary, said Greenleaf, R-Montgomery.
The nation’s sixth-largest state, Pennsylvania does not allow parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree, or premeditated, murder and sentenced to the adult prison system, nor does it set a minimum age for juveniles to be tried for murder. 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.
“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.”
The reconsideration comes a decade after a wave of get-tough-on-crime laws swept through state legislatures. 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.