Life means life for killers convicted of first- or second-degree murder in Pennsylvania, no matter the age of the murderer. The state offers no chance of parole for those offenses and, barring a successful appeal or governor's pardon, people convicted of those charges simply don't get released.
But a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlaws automatic no-parole life sentences for juveniles has led Pennsylvania lawmakers to propose legislation that would give those convicted of committing murders as youths a possible chance at freedom.
The state House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on Senate Bill 850, which deals with judicial procedures. The bill was amended last week to include new punishments for juvenile murderers.
Life still an option: Under the proposed legislation, people convicted of first-degree murders they committed as juveniles could still be sentenced to life in prison without parole, just not automatically. A judge would have to specifically impose it.
Those who were 14 or younger at the time of the murders could instead be sentenced to 25 years to life, while those who were 15 to 17 at the time of their crimes could be sentenced to 35 years to life, according to the bill.
The amendment would do away with no-parole life sentences for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder.
Instead, second-degree murderers ages 15 to 17 would be sentenced to 30 years to life, while those age 14 and younger would be sentenced to 20 years to life.
In Pennsylvania, first-degree murder is premeditated homicide; second-degree murder is a homicide committed during the course of another felony, such as robbery or rape. Murder of the third degree encompasses all murders that aren't first- or second-degree, and has a maximum sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison.
Amendment: Senate Bill 850 had already passed the state Senate before the amendment was added by Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill will be considered in the House on Tuesday, with a final vote scheduled there for Wednesday, according to Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks. He is the minority chair of House Judiciary Committee.
The bill will then be sent back to the Senate for a concurrence vote.
Caltagirone said he expects the bill will be passed by both the House and Senate this session.
Must happen: "It's got to happen," he said, because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. "We don't want to fool around -- we want to get the job done."
The amendment has bipartisan support, Caltagirone said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the issue earlier this summer, with Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate participating, said Tom Dymek, executive director of the House Judiciary Committee.
Also participating were "stakeholders" in the issue, he said, including the Pennsylvania ACLU, the Pennsylvania District Attorney Association, the state's Juvenile Law Center and victim advocates.
Opposed: The ACLU opposes the amendment, according to Andy Hoover, legislative director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.
"Life without parole should never be an option for kids," he said. "We don't believe in giving up on kids, regardless of the worst act they've committed. When a kid is 16 years old, we don't know what he's going to be like when he's 35, 45 or 55."
Hoover said the ACLU believes the state Legislature is rushing the process so the amendment can become law before the end of this legislative session.
'Robust debate': But Dymek said the process wasn't rushed.
"This has been a topic of discussion throughout the summer," he said, with the ACLU participating. "They and many other stakeholders had a wealth of opportunity to comment and be involved. ... There was robust debate, and when you're making a policy choice like this, there should be.
"Let's keep in mind what were talking about," Dymek said. "We're talking about murder -- the worst offense that can happen."
The Pennsylvania District Attorney Association supports the proposed changes, according to executive director Richard Long, who said compromises were made on both sides.
Legal limbo: If the legislation becomes law, it would apply only to future cases, officials said.
People already sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed as juveniles -- including 11 convicted in York County -- remain in legal limbo.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled their automatic life sentences are illegal, county judges in Pennsylvania have no options to modify those punishments.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to rule on what can be done about juvenile murderers already sentenced.
-- Staff writer Liz Evans Scolforo can also be reached at email@example.com.