Philadelphia has come to a crossroads: It can continue to lead the nation in sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, or it can join the vast majority of counties and states that have abandoned the practice in favor of more sensible juvenile sentencing practices.
Earlier this year in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed an earlier ruling in which it determined that giving juveniles mandatory life without parole sentences is unconstitutional, and then the court went one step further by determining that the decision should be applied retroactively. That means all men and women who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole should get a court hearing to determine whether the sentence is appropriate. The court emphasized that "appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon." They also noted that life without parole should only be given to "the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."
The Montgomery decision has serious implications for Philadelphia. The county has sentenced more juveniles to mandatory life without parole sentences than any other county in the country — nearly one in 10 juveniles given this sentence nationwide is from Philadelphia. District Attorney Seth Williams must now determine how he will proceed with the approximately 300 cases affected by the Montgomery decision.
What the court underscored in its recent decisions is the notion that justice is best served when people found to have broken the law are regarded as individuals when sentenced. Specifically, as it pertains to children, the court declared that not every person who commits even the most serious crimes automatically deserves to be sent to prison until they die. While giving justice to victims' families is always a paramount concern in American justice, so too is giving an appropriate punishment based on the characteristics of the offender.