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Why are juvenile lifers from Philly getting radically different sentences from those in the rest of Pennsylvania?

Of Pennsylvania's 521 juvenile lifers, more than half have been resentenced following a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. But the outcomes vary: "It's still very county dependent, fact dependent, and there are still a lot of politics involved."

District Attorney Matthew Weintraub in a 2017 file photograph. His office sought a 70-years-to-life sentence in a recent juvenile lifer case.
District Attorney Matthew Weintraub in a 2017 file photograph. His office sought a 70-years-to-life sentence in a recent juvenile lifer case.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / File Photograph

Judge Rea Boylan called a brief recess at her courtroom in the Bucks County Criminal Justice Center so the lawyers could consult actuarial tables on the current life expectancy of an American male: 76.1 years.

Then, a lawyer for Richard Mazeffa, who has been locked up 32 years for shooting his grandparents when he was a teenager, urged Boylan to give him some chance at release from prison before he reaches that age.

"There's two deaths. We understand that," lawyer  Burton Rose said. "I would ask the court to impose a sentence to make him eligible for parole at some time in the future that would enable him to live some years of his life out of jail." He pointed to a recent federal case that proposed the national age of retirement as a benchmark.

Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Marc Furber urged the judge to give Mazeffa two consecutive 35-to-life sentences, making him eligible for parole at 87. "A defendant who [commits] multiple murders does not receive a volume discount," he said.

The tenor of the arguments last week was unlike anything heard in Philadelphia courtrooms. Instead, it reflected the particular political microclimate of Bucks County, home to six juvenile lifers out of 521 statewide being resentenced in light of a 2016 Supreme Court holding, in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, that the court's ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole for minors applied retroactively. Pennsylvania at that time had the largest juvenile-lifer population in the nation.

While Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has attempted to create clear guidelines for that work, now that more than 300 juvenile lifers have been resentenced across 31 counties, the disparities are striking.

"It's still very county-dependent, fact-dependent, and there are still a lot of politics involved," said Brooke McCarthy, who has been tracking the results for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Juvenile Law Center. "If you look at the outcomes in Allegheny County, they are night and day from what we're seeing in Philly. That's true in various counties: In Bucks County, one judge has been handling the sentencing, and she's been particularly harsh. Different folks are handling the same facts differently."

>>READ MORE: Why is mass incarceration moving to the suburbs?

In Philadelphia, the average sentence for a juvenile lifer has been 31 years to life. In Bucks County, no one has received less than 40 years.

In Mazeffa's case, Furber said that it was only because of the inmate's remarkable prison record — he had not received a single misconduct, despite being assigned to the Forest state prison, which, by his prison counselor's estimation, is the most violent in Pennsylvania — that the DA decided not to seek life without parole.

Mazeffa at 50 — introverted and bookish, a chess master, assistant librarian and college graduate — seemed far removed from the angry 17-year-old who grabbed a shotgun 32 years ago and destroyed two lives. The rift in his family has never healed.

An uncle, George Mazeffa, a steely, gray-haired ex-Marine, said he has never forgiven his nephew and does not want to see him released. "I have significant concerns about the safety of my family," he said. Mazeffa's own father, Richard Sr., said his son was not ready for parole. Only Mazeffa's younger brother, Robert, spoke unconditionally of Mazeffa's rehabilitation.

In the end, Boylan imposed two concurrent sentences of 45 years to life, making him eligible for parole at 62.

County by county, judges have disagreed about whether sentences on multiple homicides ought to run concurrently or be stacked consecutively.

A Lancaster County judge last year imposed consecutive 40-years-to-life sentences for Michael Lee Bourgeois, for killing his adoptive parents in 2001 with three accomplices. And, in Allegheny County, a judge imposed three consecutive 25-to-life sentences on Donald Zoller, who killed three people when he was just 14; he won't go before the parole board unless he lives to be 89.

But in Philadelphia, it's been a different story. Jose Hernandez, convicted of killing four family members as a teen, received 45 years to life after the district attorney tried to offer him even less time. And another juvenile lifer, Jorge Cintron Jr., was resentenced to 30 years to life for three murders; he could be released by age 47.

>>READ MORE: Convicted of killing his family as a teen, Philly man resentenced to 45 to life

Judges have also differed when it comes to tacking on additional time for associated charges, such as robbery, conspiracy, or possession of a firearm.

For instance, in May, a Montgomery County judge imposed a 48-years-to-life sentence for Terrell Clary, who shot two men in 2000, killing one of them. That was 35 years for the murder, and 13 years for related charges of robbery and aggravated assault.

In Delaware County, where 17 out of 26 juvenile lifers are still awaiting new sentences, outcomes have ranged from 30 years to life at the low end, up to life without parole all over again. (That lifer, a man named Jose DeJesus who has been incarcerated 21 years for a fatal shooting in Chester, has a troubled disciplinary record in prison, including a stabbing. But he also suffers from serious mental illness, which has made his adjustment more difficult.)

"In the counties where there are no settlement talks, it's just going slower, because everything is a fight," McCarthy said. In some cases, delays have been strategic, as defense lawyers hope for helpful appellate decisions. "In Delaware County, a judge imposed life without parole on a second-degree case, and I think that made people a little more nervous about proceeding, so they're trying to buy some time."

According to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision last year, a juvenile must be found to be "permanently incorrigible" before a life sentence can be imposed.

Now, state appellate courts will have to weigh in on a slew of follow-up questions being lobbed from all across the commonwealth. What comprises a de facto life sentence: Is 50 years too long? Is it constitutional to stack consecutive sentences such that a juvenile who is not incorrigible has no hope of release? What is a juvenile anyway — do 18-year-olds count? And, what factors must judges consider in the resentencings, which are supposed to take into account the reduced culpability of an immature, impulsive youth, as well as his or her capacity for change?

"As much as they're supposed to be looking at all of those things, that's not happening," McCarthy said. "They're not starting with the premise of adolescent development and the potential for rehabilitation. They're just looking at: How bad was the crime? How good is your prison record?"

Consequently, advocates report that lifers who already have been incarcerated for a long time are receiving, on average, shorter sentences than ones who've been locked up for a shorter period.

"What's encouraging to date is that very few people have been resentenced to life without parole — certainly fewer than 100," said Heather Renwick, legal director of the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "When Montgomery was decided, there were 2,600 people serving juvenile life without parole around the country. That number has been cut in half to date through resentencings and legislative reform, and that will continue to drop."

But outcomes have varied widely.

In Michigan, home to 360 teen lifers, the state has sought to reimpose life without parole in more than half of its cases. In Virginia, Renwick said, "the commonwealth has fought at every step to prevent" resentencings. And in Illinois, which is working through the resentencings of about 100 juvenile lifers, Shobha Lakshmi Mahadev, a professor at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, said the vast majority are being resentenced to 50 or 60 years in prison, many with no opportunity for early release.

Other states, such as Louisiana, have addressed the issue legislatively, by creating across-the-board parole eligibility — though in some jurisdictions that still means few, if any, lifers are actually being released.

"What these decisions have done is opened up this conversation and this question: How do you sentence a child or an adolescent? What our systems did before was just to treat kids as adults — and that is unconstitutional and, given what we know now, inappropriate," Mahadev said.

"The bigger question is: Can we look to the U.S. Supreme Court to officially do what it has not yet done, which is ban the sentence? That's not yet clear."