Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
PHILADELPHIA — Joseph Baynes spent 41 years behind bars, locked up at age 17 for his role in a fatal robbery.
Convicted of second-degree murder in 1975, Baynes received mandatory life without parole under Pennsylvania’s stringent sentencing laws.
Because Baynes was a juvenile and his parents weren’t present when police questioned him, he received a new trial in 1976. That time, his earlier statement to the police, which Baynes alleges he was physically coerced to write, was excluded from trial.
But Baynes was again convicted and committed to an adult penitentiary, condemned to die in prison. "I was really petrified," he said.
Baynes was just one of Pennsylvania’s 521 juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes committed before age 18.
The juvenile-lifer population in Pennsylvania began to increase in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s amid fears of a new generation of criminals, the "superpredators" — a prediction that never materialized.
Until 2012, mandatory life without parole was the only sentencing option for Pennsylvania’s juvenile offenders convicted of first- and second-degree murder. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these sentences unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama. Juvenile justice advocates pushed for federal courts to retroactively apply the Miller ruling in Pennsylvania and for legislators to change the state’s sentencing laws.
In 2012, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Senate Bill 850 for juvenile lifers convicted after June of that year. It changed sentencing practices for first- and second-degree murder convictions.
For juveniles under the age of 15, the bill set the minimum sentence for first-degree murder at 25 years to life and 20 years to life for second-degree murder. For those at least 15, but younger than 18, the minimum sentence was 35 years to life for first-degree murder and 30 years to life for second-degree murder.
But the legislation was not retroactive.
That year Juvenile Law Center and the Defender Association of Philadelphia, in Commonwealth v. Cunningham, argued the unconstitutionality of juvenile life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania. They said that Miller should apply retroactively to the state’s juvenile lifers.
In October 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed. It decided that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller did not apply retroactively. As a result, Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers were not entitled to new sentences, and they continued to serve life terms without parole.
"It was a challenging time because we had individuals in Pennsylvania — hundreds of them — who were sitting on their hands. They couldn't move their cases forward," said Marsha Levick, co-founder and chief legal officer of Juvenile Law Center.
"It was enormously frustrating trying to figure out what were our solutions here," Levick said. "We were all trying to do whatever we could think of to find some play around the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision."
With no remedy under Miller, juvenile lifers were left waiting until 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court took up Montgomery v. Louisiana.
On January 25, 2016, Baynes, a self-proclaimed "news buff," was sitting in his bunk at Waymart State Correctional Institution watching C-SPAN, when he learned the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Miller ruling applied retroactively.
"I just kept thinking about my dad," said Baynes, after realizing he could one day be released. "My dad died in ‘09 … he was my rock."
After Baynes was arrested, his father — unable to afford bail — mortgaged his home to hire a private attorney. Baynes was convicted after refusing to take a plea deal for 12½ to 25 years in exchange for testifying against his co-defendant.
Baynes said his father called every week and visited every month. "We built this bond."
On December 22, 2016, at age 59, Baynes was resentenced to 30 years to life. He became eligible for parole, receiving credit for time served.
Prison staffers’ character-reference letters within court documents portrayed Baynes as an "exemplary" inmate prepared to make a "positive contribution to society."
Four months later, Baynes was released.
The Montgomery decision prompted more changes to Pennsylvania’s procedural requirements in juvenile cases.
In 2017, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court declared in Commonwealth v. Batts that to impose a sentence of life without parole, the state must prove that a juvenile offender is "permanently incorrigible and that rehabilitation would be impossible."
"When you place the burden on the prosecutor, it is going to be harder to impose life without parole," said Levick, who argued before the court on behalf of defendant Qu’eed Batts. "Rare and uncommon has to mean something."
After that ruling Philadelphia County alone resentenced, in 304 cases, more than half of the state’s juvenile lifer population.
Juvenile Justice in Philadelphia
Philadelphia had the largest juvenile lifer population of any jurisdiction across the United States at 304 up until 2016.
288 of the juvenile lifers were black or hispanic.
16 were white.
Among the juvenile population, only 4 women had been sentenced to life without parole.
Philadelphia has released 171 juvenile lifers since 2016.
27 juvenile lifers are pending resentencing.
104 have been resentenced.
100 have been resentenced to non-life terms and 4 are still serving life without parole sentences.
Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, current as of September 2019. By Camila Velloso.
The Defender Association of Philadelphia created a juvenile-life-without-parole unit to provide representation for juvenile lifers eligible for new sentences under the Montgomery decision.
"We met with the judiciary and prosecutor’s office to try to come up with a way to resolve that many cases in a reasonable and timely fashion," said Bradley Bridge, a veteran Philadelphia public defender and one of the unit’s three co-chairs.
To recommend sentences, the District Attorney’s office created an internal committee with senior leaders and special ADAs in the homicide unit. They reviewed evidence, case files, mitigation material from the defense and victim statements, according to DA spokesperson Cameron Kline.
"Everyone devoted significant resources toward resolving those cases, and it was only through the cooperation of all the parties that we’ve managed to very successfully [do so]," public defender Bridge added.
In three years 210 Pennsylvania juvenile lifers have been released, according to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections data analyzed by the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service.
216 juvenile lifers received sentences for a specific number of years and only 15 are still serving life without parole sentences. A number of those were resentenced but are still serving life sentences on other charges.
Juvenile lifers by county in Pennsylvania
Of the 521 juveniles sentenced to life in Pennsylvania, 304 were imprisoned in Philadelphia County. Many counties in the state have just a few juvenile lifers or none at all. Click on a county below to see the status of juvenile cases.
In over three years, Pennsylvania dramatically decreased the number of juvenil lifers incarcerated in the state, giving most a second chance.
Data current as of September 2019
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Juvenile lifers face another major issue upon release, however — adjusting to life outside prison.
Everything about reentry — housing, employment, social relationships and even how to pay a bill — was new to someone like Caesar Grant, a former juvenile lifer convicted of second-degree murder and incarcerated for 31 years.
"I did a lot of odd jobs," Grant said. "But it kept me in a right state of mind."
Grant finally settled at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. He started as an administrative assistant working for the prison services unit, which led him back into prisons.
"In my mind it felt like an achievement to just be able to go back inside of a prison as an official visitor," Grant said. "The experience was overwhelming to be able to walk into the prison and walk out."
Grant became an investigator. He now assists several units, including those working on felony waivers, municipal court and major crimes.
Joseph Baynes also found a home at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, where he’s worked as a records room clerk since July 2018.
"It's an incredibly important moment in justice reform in this country because the successful reintegration of these individuals should force us to rethink our whole justice paradigm," Levick said.
She pointed to the shrinking footprint of juvenile incarceration as a sign of progress. The Marshall Project reported an 82 percent drop in juveniles held in adult prisons since 1997.
But Levick also spoke cautiously: "The culture of retribution and revenge in this country is deep and powerful. We are not going to turn it around overnight and we may not turn it around in something that is measured in less than decades. But I think we're making progress."
Without resentencing standards, Pennsylvania now faces the ancillary issue of de facto life sentences.
Of the former juvenile lifers resentenced to non-life terms, many received new sentences of 40-plus years. In Levick’s view that can amount to life in prison.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is deliberating what constitutes a life sentence in Commonwealth v. Felder. The Defender Association of Philadelphia and Juvenile Law Center jointly appealed on behalf of Michael Felder, urging a reevaluation of his 50-year resentence.
Despite Pennsylvania’s significant progress in juvenile justice, other states such as Florida and Michigan lag behind in resentencing, much to Bridge’s surprise. “It’s an incredible abuse,” Bridge said. “It’s incumbent upon all participants in the criminal justice system to try to rectify that.”
This story has been updated.
READ MORE: Parole in the hands of governors
READ MORE: Michigan and Florida go different routes
READ MORE: Five Supreme Court decisions that changed sentencing for juveniles
About This Project
This work is a collaboration among the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service and the PBS NewsHour.
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