Philadelphia District Attorney Declares Life-Without-Parole Sentences Inappropriate for Juveniles


Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams will seek life-with-parole sentences for individuals who were sentenced to die in prison when they were children.

Nearly 500 children automatically sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in Pennsylvania must be resentenced because the United States Supreme Court struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for children in Miller v. Alabama in 2012. About 300 of those cases are from Philadelphia. Now the district attorney has shielded all formerly condemned children from death-in-prison sentences.

The Supreme Court has made clear that, “[a]fer Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.” In light of this ruling, many states have abolished life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Mr. Williams told reporters last week that he will not seek new life-without-parole sentences in these cases; instead, he will seek sentences of life with the possibility of parole after 20 to 35 years.

“It’s my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “As long as I’m the D.A., we will not be asking for cases going forward for life without the possibility of parole for people under the age of 18 because of the same exact reasons articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller.”

The paper reports that Mr. Williams will prioritize the oldest cases, like those of Henry Smolarski and Tyrone Jones, who were resentenced on Friday and are now eligible for parole after serving 37 and 43 years, respectively, for crimes when they were teenagers. A third of the people from Philadelphia have been incarcerated for at least three decades.

The district attorney’s decision not to seek life-without-parole sentences for juveniles not only advances the principles articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller, but also will potentially save millions of dollars by avoiding the extensive procedures that are now triggered when life without parole is a potential sentence.