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March 10th, 2015, 12:00 AM


Since 2009, the Supreme Court has issued two decisions circumscribing the use of juvenile life without parole sentences. In Graham v. Florida the Court held juvenile life without parole unconstitutional in non-homicide cases. In Miller v. Alabama the Court held mandatory juvenile life without parole cases unconstitutional, regardless of the crime.

Both cases rested on the principles first set forth by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons emphasizing that juveniles are different from adults in ways that are constitutionally relevant to juveniles' culpability: youth are more impetuous than adults, more susceptible to outside pressures, and more capable of change, reformation, and rehabilitation.

Graham v. Florida involved a challenge to a sentence of life without parole imposed on a 16-year-old convicted of violating his probation following a conviction for robbery. In ruling that such a sentence is categorically unconstitutional for any juvenile convicted of a non-homicide crime, the Court noted such sentences were unconstitutional given the limited culpability of a young offender and the severity of the sentence.

In Miller v. Alabama, Court considered the constitutionality of imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. The Court held that such mandatory sentences violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, and that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing a life without parole sentence. The opinion made clear that life without parole sentences should be rare, and that mitigating circumstances include: age and its hallmark features, the youth's home and family environment, the circumstances of the homicide offense and the youth's level of involvement, and the extent to which the defendant's age impacted his or her ability to deal with police officers, prosecutors, or to assist his own attorneys.

Retroactivity of Miller

In Commonwealth v. Cunningham,  the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Miller is not retroactive.

The issue is currently pending in the third circuit in the case of Songster v. Beard.  Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, February 25, 2015.

Application to Mandatory Minimums

Around the country, advocates are arguing that Miller stands for the proposition that any mandatory minimum sentence is unconstitutional.  Most notably, the Iowa Supreme Court held in State v. Lyle that a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years was unconstitutional as applied to a juvenile, pursuant to Miller.

Current Pennsylvania Legislation

In the wake of Miller, the Pennsylvania legislature enacted Act 204. Under this Act, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder may be sentenced to life without parole or:

  • A minimum of 35 years to life for youth ages 15-17.
  • A minimum of 25 years to life for youth 14 or younger.

Juveniles convicted of second-degree (felony) murder may be sentenced to:

  • A minimum of 30 years to life for 15 to 17-year-olds.
  • A minimum of 20 years to life for youth 14 or younger.

Policy Issue Details: For More Information

If you are working on a juvenile life without parole case, please join the Pennsylvania Juvenile Life without Parole Listserv . For more information on life without parole cases in Pennsylvania, please contact
Juvenile Law Center
The Philadelphia Building
1315 Walnut Street, 4th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19107
By Telephone:
Local: (215) 625-0551
Toll-free: 1-800-875-8887
Fax: (215) 625-2808
Information line: 1-888-864-6393

Bradley S. Bridge
Defender Association of Philadelphia
1441 Sansom St Rm 827
Philadelphia, PA, 19102
Marsha Levick
Juvenile Law Center
The Philadelphia Building
1315 Walnut Street, 4th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19107

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