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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision Will Leave Juvenile Lifers in Prison

Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison was cruel and unusual punishment, sparking a glimmer of hope in some 450 inmates across Pennsylvania. But in a recent turn of events, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dashed that hope by ruling not to apply the decision retroactively. Now, disappointed lifers are struggling harder than ever for the possibility of parole.

Out of Appeals and Out of Luck

In 2012, the case of Miller v. Alabama led to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The landmark ruling came as good news for an approximate 450 lifers across the state of Pennsylvania, many incarcerated for crimes committed years or even decades ago. But now, that quick flash of excitement is sizzling out, because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has counter-ruled that the decision of Miller v. Alabama cannot be applied retroactively to lifers who are already in the system — and out of appeals.

Depending on the timing of their crime, some offenders are finding themselves holding a worse hand of legal cards than others — which has many attorneys frustrated. Marsha Levick, a Philadelphia attorney for the Juvenile Law Center, is among them. “When the U.S. Supreme Court puts down a marker,” says Levick, “it is morally unconscionable to leave any juvenile on the other side of that marker.”

Because while some inmates who were “fortunate” enough to be sentenced recently may still be able to cling to the hope of their remaining appeals, those who exhausted those appeals before the Miller ruling remain trapped without parole — even though the crimes themselves may be highly similar. Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, calls the ruling “exceedingly unfair,” and Robert Buttner, another attorney, poses the question, “Are we saying children’s immaturity and development is less now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s?”

Grieving Families Welcome the Decision

However, on the other side of the fence, victims of aging crimes are heartened by the Pennsylvania Court’s decision. In 2003 in Allentown, PA, Darryl Romig’s 12-year-old daughter was raped and then strangled to death by Brian A. Bahr. Bahr was incarcerated at 17. Ten years later, now 27 years old, Bahr is one of the roughly 450 inmates affected by the new rulings. But while Bahr’s crimes may be past, Romig’s pains are still very much present.

“It’s really good to hear,” says Romig. “Really. I’m just glad he doesn’t have the chance to be resentenced. He did what he did and he deserved what he got.” Richard Long is the executive director of the PA District Attorney’s Association, and he tends to agree with Romig. “The survivors of murder victims have had to deal with the loss of a loved one taken from them by a juvenile murderer,” says Long. “Would it be fair to have those cases reopened for another sentencing?”

If your child is facing criminal allegations, contact the Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys at Young, Marr & Associates immediately, or call us at (609) 755-3115 in New Jersey or (215) 701-6519 in Pennsylvania.

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