A bill signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett last week is the last piece of the juvenile justice puzzle that arose from the kids for cash scandal in Luzerne County, local legislators say.
The law gives judges sentencing juveniles convicted for first- and second-degree murder more discretion, makes some sexting a crime, closes district judge hearings for juveniles who are charged with a summary offense and allows victim advocates to help crime victims in adult and juvenile court, among other provisions.
I am very proud of the fact that we have landmark juvenile justice reform with many of the proposals that have been signed into law, said state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township. Senate Bill 850 is obviously a final and key piece of that.
The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf and co-sponsored by Baker, state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township and others.
Senate Bill 850 follows a long line of other juvenile justice legislation, including laws requiring legal counsel be present at juvenile delinquency hearings and requiring judges to state why each juvenile received the specific disposition they were given.
Most legislation came from suggestions made in August 2009 by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, Baker said, which made its recommendations after two judges were charged with accepting kickbacks from the builder of private juvenile detention facilities the county utilized.
Former judge Mark Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence and former Judge Michael Conahan was sentenced to 17 ½ years in prison.
For the juveniles impacted by the whole scandal in Luzerne County, it is my hope that families and children will get closure moving forward, Baker said. It's a positive system change …
Most notably in the bill, juveniles convicted of first- and second-degree murder can no longer receive mandatory life sentences when tried as an adult.
Though, that does not mean a judge is precluded from imposing a life sentence, the bill allows for a judge to choose from a wide range of sentencing options.
Defendants 14 years of age or younger at the time of the crime would serve a minimum of 20 years for second-degree convictions and 25 years for first-degree convictions.
Offenders who are 15 to 17 years of age would face a minimum of 25 years for second-degree murder and 35 years for first-degree murder.
A judge must also take into consideration age, the juvenile's mental capacity, maturity and the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the juvenile.
The sentencing provision of the bill came in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles.
(The sentencing options) give judges more discretion in dealing with juveniles … Yudichak said. They aren't just throwing away a life. There certainly is a toughness in sentencing and they are going to pay for their crime, but for the justice system to work there has to be some discretion.
Luzerne County Chief Public Defender Al Flora said while he understands the legislature was following directives of the U.S. Supreme Court, he has a different viewpoint on the sentencing options.
The sentences are still lengthy and may have lasting effects on juveniles.
For example, Flora said, a 10-year-old convicted of first- or second-degree murder could receive between 20 years in prison and life.
That … is a long time for a 10-year-old kid to be in prison, Flora said. Especially those under 14, their brains are not fully developed.
Flora said juveniles don't have the emotional understanding to fully comprehend what is happening to them and many have mental health issues.
As a society, we need to figure out ways to address the needs of these children without throwing them in jail for 20 years and locking them away, Flora said. When you do that, if you think they are going to come out a model citizen, that's not going to happen.
Flora said allowing juveniles to be tried as juveniles, rather than adults, leaves more room for rehabilitation.
Flora said juvenile dispositions – similar to adult sentencings – give a judge several rehabilitation options, including placement in a facility until the age of 21.
Flora said the juvenile justice system needs more funding, not just new laws.
The office is required to perform new tasks, bring in social workers, juvenile and adult lawyers, psychiatrists and psychologists and other expert services.
Right now, our juvenile defender unit is pushed to the max, Flora said. It's an enormous task dealing with this type of stuff and becomes costly.
Trying a juvenile murder case is as costly as trying an adult death penalty case, Flora said.
When are (legislators) going to give us resources necessary to help these kids? Flora said. I haven't seen one piece of legislation that addresses that issue.
He said legislators must band together in a bipartisan effort – similar to the juvenile justice laws – to address funding public defender offices.
Counties can't foot the bill anymore, Flora said.
• Joshua Smoke Bradshaw, now 23, was 16 when he was charged with the January 2006 death of Kevin D'Souza, 25, who was stabbed several times in a secluded area near the Sherman Hills apartment complex in Wilkes-Barre.
Instead of facing a jury and a possible conviction of first-degree murder, Bradshaw pleaded guilty to a third-degree murder charge and was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
• Erika Legg, now 23, was 16 when she and three family members were charged in the October 2005 beating death of 73-year-old Peter Lach in Edwardsville.
Legg faced a trial, but instead pleaded guilty to a third-degree murder charge and was sentenced to nine to 18 years in state prison.
• Cody Lee, now 19, was 16 when he was charged in the December 2009 shooting death of his great-grandfather, 80-year-old Herbert Lee in Lake Township.
Lee's attorneys recently sought to have their client's case heard in juvenile court, but a county judge ruled the case would be tried in adult court.
The defense attorneys are currently appealing the judge's decision.
• Sawud Davis, 16, of East Ridge Street, Nanticoke, and formerly of Philadelphia, was charged in July along with his half-brother, Shawn Hamilton, 18, in the shooting deaths of Lisa Abaunza, 15, Nicholas Maldonado, 17, and Bradley Swartwood, 21, in a Plymouth apartment.
Davis appeared for a preliminary hearing on Friday and will next face a formal arraignment on charges in Luzerne County Court.