This article was originally published on The Legal Intelligencer by Max Mitchell on April 26, 2016
After several months of discussions, city agencies have begun nailing down funding agreements so Philadelphia’s criminal justice system can take the next step in resentencing hundreds of inmates given unconstitutional life sentences as juveniles.
According to Benjamin Lerner, deputy managing director for criminal justice, the city has agreed to cover expenses that the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office will incur over the next year as they begin to resentence nearly 300 people given life sentences as juveniles. Those sentences were deemed unconstitutional under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.
Although many of the details are yet to be hammered out, Lerner said the costs are expected to be about $1.5 million for the first year.
“Even while we are in the middle of a very difficult appropriation and budget season, the city agreed to come up with additional funding so that both the DA and the Defender Association are comfortable going ahead on these hearings,” Lerner said. “The city understands the importance of the issue.”
Along with the funding agreement from the city, the First Judicial District has also agreed to absorb any additional costs it will incur to ensure the resentencing proceedings can begin as soon as the parties are ready.
According to Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Administrative Judge Jacqueline Allen, although it is too early to say exactly what will be needed, the resources will likely include additional staff and judges. The court, Allen said, is still establishing a protocol for the cases to be handled, but she said the court will likely establish an en banc panel at the common pleas level to rule on purely legal issues, so the cases can be handled in a uniform manner.
“Optimally, we should be able, by early fall, to have adjudicated some of these cases,” Allen said.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana came down in January retroactively invalidating life sentences for juveniles, the Defender Association has been working to determine exactly which inmates it will be able to represent, and funding levels have been a concern.
The agreement with the city is expected to include money for attorneys and mitigation specialists to help handle the cases, and should allow the agency to begin representing 225 people.
“Now that we’ve reached an agreement with the city, we are ready to go, as far as to jump in and enter our appearance on behalf of these individuals and start working the cases towards resentencing hearings,” said James McHugh of the Defender Association.
John Delaney of the District Attorney’s Office said the agency has requested funding for additional attorneys, paralegals and investigators, who would help contact the survivors of the victims.
Philadelphia, as a jurisdiction, is facing the largest number of inmates who will now need to be resentenced under Montgomery. According to the Department of Corrections, Pennsylvania is home to 479 inmates, or nearly one-fifth of the inmates affected by the ruling. Philadelphia has nearly 274 inmates awaiting resentencing, one of whom has been in prison since 1953, when he was 15 years old.
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