Minors convicted of murder in Pennsylvania could serve as little as 20 years in prison under guidelines set in a bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett on Thursday.

The law gives defendants under age 15 at least 20 years for second-degree murder and 25 years for first-degree. Those ages 15 to 17 would see minimum sentences drop to 25 and 35 years, respectively.

The law was spurred by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that bans automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said the law is a fair answer to the court's ruling.

"The approach that is made is a pretty well-balanced one," he said.

Parole: Opponents of the then-bill had argued that paroled juvenile murderers would be released with very few life skills.

However, Kearney said inmates are offered rehabilitation programs and would likely receive life skills and training for jobs while in prison.

"We don't call ... it the Department of Corrections for no reason," he said.

The new guidelines set only the minimum sentencing limits, meaning a convicted murderer could serve a longer sentence -- including a life sentence -- and that inmates are paroled only after they've proven they are fit to return to society.

"They (parole board members) look very long and hard and (if criminals aren't rehabilitated) they don't get the minimum," Kearney said.


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Sentenced: The law applies 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.

Pennsylvania prison officials have put the number of juvenile lifers at about 300, while advocates say that figure is too low and doesn't account for defendants who turned 18 before sentencing.

The state Supreme Court is considering what to do about those currently in the prison system under sentences now deemed to be illegal.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.