HARRISBURG -- Their brains are not mature. They deserve a second chance. No other country punishes them as severely as we do in the United States.
Such were the arguments put forth on behalf of "juvenile lifers" this week during a Senate committee hearing on whether Pennsylvania should continue its policy of throwing away the key when it comes to locking up juvenile offenders convicted of murder -- no matter how large or small a role they may have played in the crime.
Pennsylvania currently leads the nation in the number of "juvenile lifers," with 444 of the nation's approximately 2,300 inmates currently sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as minors, according to figures provided at the hearing convened by State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove).
To those who view Pennsylvania's mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder as unfair, the hearing represented another chance to vocalize their views and call for the end of a policy and practice they say is as peculiar as it is perverse.
But to the survivors of homicide victims, the prospect of giving juvenile lifers a mandatory shot at release was an unsettling one that prompted several of them to recount the horrific details of their loved ones' deaths in order to underscore the pain inflicted by their killers.
"I want everyone here to stop and think what it's like to wake up and a family member is not there because they were brutally murdered," said Jodi Dotts, whose 15-year-old daughter, Kimberly, was hung and brutally beaten in Clearfield on Mother's Day 1998 by a group that included several teenagers.
Like other relatives of homicide victims, Dotts scoffed at the notion of "second chances" for juvenile killers.
"My daughter didn't have a second chance," Dotts said. "I'm here to make sure these juveniles don't get released."
But not all juvenile lifers are actual killers, and some are first-time offenders -- factors that advocates say should be considered when they are punished for their crimes.
They include Pennsylvania inmates such as Stacey Torrance, 34, who spoke at the hearing from a state prison via video teleconferencing equipment. Torrance was convicted of murder at age 14 for his role in a Philadelphia robbery in which the victim was ultimately killed by other co-actors hours after Torrance had left the scene, according to Torrance and published reports.
"I didn't know there were going to be weapons involved," Torrance testified on TV monitors in the Senate hearing room that did not show his face. "I didn't know someone was going to be hurt."
Torrance, who says he lives with guilt and shame over the death of the robbery victim, 16-year-old Alex Porter, says changing the state's policy to allow parole for juvenile lifers doesn't mean "outright release."
"Parole could be denied," Torrance said. But life without parole, he said, is a "death-in-prison" sentence."
Other inmates, such as Erik Van Zant, 35, generated less sympathy once the details of their crimes were made known.
Van Zant, who has been in prison since 14, initially impressed some in the audience when he detailed his work helping to steer younger inmates clear of a life of crime.
But Edward F. McCann, Jr., chief of the homicide division of the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, said Van Zant's work in prison is laudable, but his crime was so horrific that his release would raises serious public safety concerns.
"He says 21 years is enough," McCann said of Van Zant, who had testified that he is not the same individual today that he was when he was 14. "But tell that to the family of the victim," McCann said, detailing how Van Zant sexually assaulted his victim with a shower rod and then threw her down the steps.
"We're gonna take chances that the perpetrator of such a savage act is fit to walk among us again?" McCann said.
Many speakers lauded Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court that banned the execution of juveniles because juveniles are deemed less culpable than adults.
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