By Tony Hanson

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The US Supreme Court today ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional, because they violate the 8th Amendment’s protection from “cruel and unusual punishment” (see related story).

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The decision — related to excessive sanctions and the precept of justice that punishment for crimes should be graduated and proportioned — could have the biggest impact here in Pennsylvania.

Bradley Bridge, a Philadelphia public defender and veteran attorney, says the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has the most juvenile lifers of any state, by far, and most of them were sentenced in Philadelphia.

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“All the sentences in Pennsylvania — there are some 480 juveniles that have been sentenced to life without parole — were the result of a mandatory determination that they must get life in prison without parole because they were found guilty of either first-degree or second-degree murder,” he explains. “There was no discretion to the sentencing judge in that circumstance, and that is precisely what the United States Supreme Court found to be improper.”

The ruling is certainly no guarantee of release, now or perhaps ever.   But Bridge says the Supreme Court has ruled that these lifers must be given a meaningful opportunity to obtain release — and that means going before a parole board.

The high court’s 5-4 decision is in line with related issues the court has decided, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.

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