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The Uncertain Fate of Pennsylvania's Juvenile Lifers | The Nation

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The Uncertain Fate of Pennsylvania's Juvenile Lifers

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Nancy Sponeybarger was 21 when she arrived to work as a counselor at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Muncy. The year was 1971. “I was fresh out of college and I thought I was going to change the world,” she says and laughs. “Yeah, right.”

About the Author

Matt Stroud
Matt Stroud covers prisons, money and cities for outlets including Reuters and The Atlantic.
Liliana Segura
Liliana Segura
Liliana Segura is Associate Editor of The Nation. She also writes about prisons and harsh sentencing. Follow her on...

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What she found was an overcrowded and dysfunctional women’s prison where, as she describes it, “the ‘women’ were girls—and they were invisible. Staff would talk about them right in front of their faces like they weren’t there.” One deputy warden made it a habit to feed her dog in front of them using the “officers’ china”—as opposed to the cheap plates used by inmates. Worse than such minor humiliations were the major instances of abuse. While Nancy left shortly before the arrival of Trina Garnett, a teenage prisoner who was raped and impregnated by a prison guard, she remembers “other women that had gotten pregnant at Muncy.… That was kind of an occurrence that happened. And people kept it very, very, very quiet.”

Soon after arriving at Muncy, Nancy met Sharon Wiggins, who had been convicted, along with two young men, of robbing a bank and killing a customer in the process. Although she was only 17 at the time of her crime, she was sentenced to death. Two years later, a three-judge panel reduced her sentence to life without parole.

African-American and 5 foot 3, Sharon “was this little, little thing,” Nancy recalls. Yet she stood out as someone who would try to protect her fellow prisoners, particularly those who were younger than her. When she saw something that she felt was wrong, she would not keep quiet. “As a counselor,” Nancy says, “I would say, ‘You need to let this go,’ and she would say, ‘It’s the principle of the thing.’ And you know, my counsel was, ‘The hell with the principle of the thing. This is the system and you need to not get written up!’ ”

“As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity,” Nancy says.

Nancy left Muncy in 1976. Today she is retired. Sharon never left. Today, she is 60 years old.

“I visit Sharon every month,” Nancy says. She sends her money to help her get what she needs—which these days, is a lot. “Her health isn’t okay. She’s had heart surgery. She has a stent. She has high blood pressure. She has stomach problems. She’s just, you know, she’s 60. Sharon’s 60. She’s not a kid anymore.”

Breaking the Law

A June US Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, declared that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile defendants. Numbers compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicate there are more than 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide.

According to those same numbers, eight states and the District of Columbia were entirely unaffected by the Miller ruling, as they prohibit mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences and have no prisoners serving that sentence. (Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and West Virgina.) Colorado, which has forty-eight juvenile lifers, abolished juvenile life without parole a few years ago; Texas and Kentucky, with five apiece, have also gotten rid of it, as has Montana, which is home to just one juvenile lifer. (What the decision means for those prisoners is not yet clear, but Colorado's prisoners, who were sentenced under mandatory statutes, should be entitled to a resentencing hearing.)

Sixteen other states (Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Wisonsin, Wyoming, and Vermont), along with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, can decide whether they want the Miller decision to affect their laws or not. These states have “discretionary” sentencing rules for juveniles—meaning that life without parole is on the table but not mandatory.

But that leaves twenty-three states with newly unconstitutional juvenile sentencing practices. Those states now need to rewrite sentencing laws to take the Miller decision into account. Nowhere are the implications of Miller as immense as they are in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State incarcerates some 480 juvenile lifers—more than any other state in the country. And since the United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole, Pennsylvania is perhaps the strictest place on earth when it comes to punishing violent juvenile crime.

A handful of affected states have already acted. Indiana, for example, decided on July 31 to uphold the life sentence of one of its few juvenile lifers. (Dissenting judges would have preferred resentencing him to sixty-five years.) Iowa’s governor took a slightly different—and controversial—approach by simply converting the life sentences of the state’s thirty-eight juvenile lifers to sixty-year sentences. Yale law professor Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, was one of the decision’s many critics. “The main point of the Miller decision,” he said, was about “individualized sentencing based on factors about each human being. Obviously, nothing about any of the thirty-eight individuals was taken into account, just as it was not when they were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.”

Pennsylvania is taking a more nuanced approach. On July 12 in Harrisburg a hearing on the matter was convened before its Senate Judiciary Committee. Overseen by longtime Republican Senator Stewart Greenleaf, it took place in a high-ceilinged, mahogany-paneled room of Pennsylvania’s Beaux-Arts style capitol building. The hearing featured testimony from twenty-six people—none of them prisoners—who advocate for organizations, litigate juvenile cases or are otherwise involved in the juvenile lifer debate. These people, Nancy Sponeybarger among them, offered strong opinions about how Pennsylvania’s laws should change after Miller.

“We have new cases that are coming through the pipeline right now,” Jeffrey Shook, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, told The Nation. The goal of the hearing was “to put together a series of concrete suggestions to figure out how we can improve upon our current system of laws,” he says. “How do we address Miller? What’s the language we should use?”

Bradley Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, laid out the history of the state’s sentencing practices, which long predate the more familiar factors—such as eighties-era hysteria over “superpredators”—that led many states to embrace “adult time for adult crimes.” Bridge represents the state’s longest-serving lifer—Joseph Ligon, who was incarcerated when he was 15 years old, in 1953. Until Miller, in Pennsylvania, there was no minimum age at which a juvenile could be transferred to adult court and then given an automatic mandatory life sentence upon conviction.

“Pennsylvania ended up with so many juvenile lifers because mandatory life imprisonment without parole has been the sentence for first- or second-degree murder for nearly ninety years,” he explained. The result: Pennsylvania has 20 percent of the juvenile lifer population in the United States. In dollar costs alone, this means “the dedication of over $2 million” per child sentenced to die behind bars.

People listen to Bridge. He is perhaps the foremost Pennsylvania attorney addressing sentencing reform for violent juvenile offenders. “To shorten my statements, I could just say, ‘Whatever Brad Bridge says, I agree with,’ ” joked Andy Hoover, legislative director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU. This could prove important when it comes to one issue that dominated the hearing: the question of retroactivity. Should the Supreme Court decision in Miller necessarily apply to prisoners already serving juvenile life without parole?

Arguing that it should not was Bobbi Jamriska, who testified on behalf of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. In 1993 a 16-year-old beat, stabbed and killed Jamriska’s pregnant sister. The perpetrator was sentenced to life without parole. A victims’ rights advocate ever since—and one of the most outspoken victim’s rights advocates in the state—Jamriska testified that because of a juvenile lifer her “whole life is in complete upheaval.”

“The sentences in these cases, cases like my sister’s murder, were prosecuted and sentenced under laws that were acceptable at the time,” she argued. Carol Lavery, another victims' advocate, testified after her. “At some point in [their] journey, [victims] were assured that the offender who took the life of their loved one would spend the rest of his or her life in prison,” she said.

But as Bridge testified, that argument draws a false distinction “between the rights accorded by a Supreme Court decision to those whose convictions were pending on direct appeal” at the time and those whose appeals have long since ended. As is common in Supreme Court decisions, the Miller ruling actually involved two cases: “Miller” is Evan Miller, who, along with a friend, beat a victim with a baseball bat and set fire to his trailer when he was 14. His case was attached to another case—that of Kuntrell Jackson, a 14-year-old in Arkansas who took part in a robbery in which an accomplice killed a clerk with a shotgun. Miller’s case ended up in front of the Supreme Court through direct appeals. But Jackson’s case came to the Court through a habeas petition, based on the Court’s 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, which made juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes. The Court “refused to draw any distinction” between the two, he argued. It “applied the same rule and invalidated mandatory life imprisonment for both Jackson and Miller.”

“Moreover,” he testified, “if you look at the key retroactivity case, Teague v. Lane, it is clear that Jackson and Miller barred a certain category of punishment (mandatory life imprisonment without parole) for a class of defendants because of their status and that it constituted a ‘watershed rule of criminal procedure.’ Therefore, the Jackson/Miller rule should be applied retroactively.”

“Some measure of justice

But sober legal explanations don’t persuade everyone. Nor do they necessarily lead to sound sentencing policy. As in other states, victims’ advocates in Pennsylvania often have a very strong voice when it comes to violent crime, and the push is toward harsh punishment. As Bruce Beemer, chief of staff at Pennsylvania’s office of the attorney general, argued, the Miller solution must provide “victims and their families some measure of justice, seeing that murderers are held appropriately accountable for the crime they committed and the devastation they caused.”

It’s up to the Senate Judiciary Committee to weigh all sides and come up with a legislative sentencing solution, ideally before October, when lawmakers break for the election. (In the meantime, the state Supreme Court has already scheduled oral arguments in two cases, to take place next month, which will set the tone for the resentencing of hundreds of prisoners.) It will be a challenge; while a number of different reforms were proposed, no consensus emerged as to how long teenage offenders should spend behind bars for violent crimes. Joe Heckel, of the advocacy group Fight for Lifers West, and William M. DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, argued that they should receive sentences of ten years to life. (DiMascio suggested holding annual parole hearings once the ten-year minimum has been met.) Beemer would prefer a minimum sentence of forty years to life. And Bridge, citing occasions when Pennsylvania courts struck down the state’s death penalty statute and commuted prisoners’ sentences to “the next most severe” punishment available, suggested a similar route, converting life without parole sentences handed out for first- and second-degree murder to sentences of twenty to forty years, as in third-degree murder cases.

One of the final presenters at the hearing, Nancy Sponeybarger, agreed with Bridge. With short, graying hair, wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a black suit, she was poised, her voice steady, her opinions drawing on her years working alongside prisoners. The hearing had gone on for nearly three hours by the time she spoke, and roughly half of the hundred or so attendees had left to grab a bite to eat or to head home.

“Counseling juvenile lifers was not an easy task,” she told the remaining legislators. “What hope can be given to a person who believes that, no matter what they do, they will die in prison? These are kids that were basically dropped into the adult system, which is—and this is an understatement—neither gentle nor kind. And as lifers, they were usually at the bottom rung for programming.”

“Yet even under these circumstances," she said, "some of these individuals have grown into adults who have found that the best way they can atone for their offense is to give back to others." While Nancy did not mention Sharon Wiggins by name, she described the positive contributions she has made at Muncy, working as a peer counselor and a tutor and helping to prevent “what could be explosive situations” involving fellow prisoners.

Speaking to The Nation later, she cast Sharon’s life in starker terms. “I’m sure Sharon would have been dead if she hadn’t gone to prison,” she said. “But she sort of died in a different way.”

Yet, she added, after Miller, “for the first time in—I don’t know, twelve, fifteen years—she has hope. Sharon has hope.”

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