Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Nanette Kardaszeksi)

For 53-year-old Henry Smolarski, and thousands of others across the country, the work of Marsha Levick means he will not die in prison.

Smolarski has been incarcerated since he was 17. He is one of thousands of inmates who were given a life without parole sentence when they were juveniles—a sentence that was recently ruled unconstitutional based in large part on the work of Levick and the Juvenile Law Center, which she co-founded.

“If it wasn’t for Marsha Levick, Henry Smolarski would have died in jail,” said Burton Rose, a defense attorney who represented Smolarski at his resentencing hearing June 3. As a result of that hearing, Smolarski may soon be released on parole.

Although Levick’s work regarding sentences for juveniles impacts thousands of inmates across the country, the results of her work have been felt most heavily in Pennsylvania, which is the state with the highest number of juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole, and in Philadelphia in particular, where about 300 inmates—the largest of any jurisdiction in the country—faced the now unconstitutional sentence.

Smolarski was the first to be resentenced in Philadelphia in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that a ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively. Levick was co-counsel on the case.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery came down in January, Levick was actively involved in the case long before that. She and the Juvenile Law Center were also involved in a series of Supreme Court cases over the past decade that led up to the Montgomery decision and shaped juvenile criminal justice nationally. Those cases include the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons decision, which made death penalty sentences unconstitutional for juveniles, the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, which determined that life without parole for nonhomicide crimes violated the Eighth Amendment, and the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, which determined that mandatory juvenile life without parole is unconstitutional—a holding that Montgomery applied retroactively.

According to Levick, acting as co-counsel on Montgomery meant she and others at the Juvenile Law Center, including Emily C. Keller and Jean W. Strout, did 90 percent of the briefing and set up five moot courts across the country to help prepare for oral arguments before the justices.

“We were very involved in all of the prep,” Levick said. “It’s an issue and an area in which we have an extraordinary amount of expertise, and it was our goal to bring that to bear in preparing for this case [Montgomery].”

When it came to the prior Supreme Court rulings regarding juvenile sentences, her group was the only organization in the country to write an amicus in each Roper, Graham, and Miller.

“These cases are almost a cascading series of decisions where I think that the majority in each of these underscored its aversion to treating juveniles like adults,” she said.

Jody Kent Lavy of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for age-appropriate criminal justice reforms, said Levick is a “thought leader,” a “brilliant legal mind” and a “trailblazer on the rights of children who come in conflict with the law.”

“I think the work being done around the country has been greatly impacted by her work over the last several decades,” Kent Lavy said. “Her commitment to the work is just inspiring.”

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia has worked with Levick closely for the past decade, litigating roughly two dozen cases in Pennsylvania that deal with the juvenile sentencing issues, including mandatory life without parole. The two argued a pair of cases before the state Supreme Court regarding whether Miller‘s ban on life without parole sentences for juveniles should apply retroactively in the state.

According to Bridge, Levick brings—to a case—creativity, energy and experience with juvenile justice. But, that’s not the entire reason why she has been able to stay at the forefront of these issues for so long.

“She’s got a vision thing going on,” he said. “There’s proficuous timing involved, but it’s substantially more than that. She has the ability to see long range based on the circumstances that exist in the present, and the perseverance to push forward through those issues to the next year, and years down the road.”

Criminal defense attorney David Rudovsky, who has worked with Levick for several years, agreed, and said that she and the Juvenile Law Center 15 years ago recognized and began strategizing about juvenile justice issues that are only now beginning to become mainstream topics.

“They realized that the way we have historically, with the war on crime, treated and defined criminal offenses by juveniles is counter-productive,” Rudovsky said.

When it comes to the recent ruling in Montgomery, attorneys agreed the ruling is hugely significant for inmates nationally and in Pennsylvania specifically. But, according to Levick, the ruling, and the ones that preceded it, will likely open up numerous new questions about allocations of burdens in juvenile sentencings, whether safeguards will need to be in place to ensure sentences are properly handled at the trial level (an issue that is already before the state Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Batts), and whether new challenges can be made against other mandatory sentencing schemes that juveniles face.

“I think that these cases give us tools and the means to bring additional challenges forward,” Levick said.

While Levick continues to look at what new arguments and opportunities these recent Supreme Court cases offer in her continuing efforts to shape juvenile criminal justice, many in Pennsylvania are still reeling from the ruling’s direct impact.

Smolarski was resentenced to 35 years to life in prison June 3. Since he’s already been in prison for 36 years, that means he now can be eligible for parole.

According to Smolarski’s attorney, Smolarski was a model inmate, and both the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office and family members of the victim agreed they would push for Smolarski to be immediately paroled. Active in the prison religious community and often speaking to younger inmates about the dangers of breaking the law, Rose said dozens of letters of support from those who had been in contact with Smolarski were presented during the resentencing hearing.

“If it wasn’t for the judges and lawyers in these cases, it would have come to naught,” Rose said.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •

For 53-year-old Henry Smolarski, and thousands of others across the country, the work of Marsha Levick means he will not die in prison.

Smolarski has been incarcerated since he was 17. He is one of thousands of inmates who were given a life without parole sentence when they were juveniles—a sentence that was recently ruled unconstitutional based in large part on the work of Levick and the Juvenile Law Center, which she co-founded.

“If it wasn’t for Marsha Levick, Henry Smolarski would have died in jail,” said Burton Rose, a defense attorney who represented Smolarski at his resentencing hearing June 3. As a result of that hearing, Smolarski may soon be released on parole.

Although Levick’s work regarding sentences for juveniles impacts thousands of inmates across the country, the results of her work have been felt most heavily in Pennsylvania, which is the state with the highest number of juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole, and in Philadelphia in particular, where about 300 inmates—the largest of any jurisdiction in the country—faced the now unconstitutional sentence.

Smolarski was the first to be resentenced in Philadelphia in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that a ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively. Levick was co-counsel on the case.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery came down in January, Levick was actively involved in the case long before that. She and the Juvenile Law Center were also involved in a series of Supreme Court cases over the past decade that led up to the Montgomery decision and shaped juvenile criminal justice nationally. Those cases include the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons decision, which made death penalty sentences unconstitutional for juveniles, the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, which determined that life without parole for nonhomicide crimes violated the Eighth Amendment, and the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, which determined that mandatory juvenile life without parole is unconstitutional—a holding that Montgomery applied retroactively.

According to Levick, acting as co-counsel on Montgomery meant she and others at the Juvenile Law Center, including Emily C. Keller and Jean W. Strout, did 90 percent of the briefing and set up five moot courts across the country to help prepare for oral arguments before the justices.

“We were very involved in all of the prep,” Levick said. “It’s an issue and an area in which we have an extraordinary amount of expertise, and it was our goal to bring that to bear in preparing for this case [Montgomery].”

When it came to the prior Supreme Court rulings regarding juvenile sentences, her group was the only organization in the country to write an amicus in each Roper, Graham, and Miller.

“These cases are almost a cascading series of decisions where I think that the majority in each of these underscored its aversion to treating juveniles like adults,” she said.

Jody Kent Lavy of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for age-appropriate criminal justice reforms, said Levick is a “thought leader,” a “brilliant legal mind” and a “trailblazer on the rights of children who come in conflict with the law.”

“I think the work being done around the country has been greatly impacted by her work over the last several decades,” Kent Lavy said. “Her commitment to the work is just inspiring.”

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia has worked with Levick closely for the past decade, litigating roughly two dozen cases in Pennsylvania that deal with the juvenile sentencing issues, including mandatory life without parole. The two argued a pair of cases before the state Supreme Court regarding whether Miller‘s ban on life without parole sentences for juveniles should apply retroactively in the state.

According to Bridge, Levick brings—to a case—creativity, energy and experience with juvenile justice. But, that’s not the entire reason why she has been able to stay at the forefront of these issues for so long.

“She’s got a vision thing going on,” he said. “There’s proficuous timing involved, but it’s substantially more than that. She has the ability to see long range based on the circumstances that exist in the present, and the perseverance to push forward through those issues to the next year, and years down the road.”

Criminal defense attorney David Rudovsky, who has worked with Levick for several years, agreed, and said that she and the Juvenile Law Center 15 years ago recognized and began strategizing about juvenile justice issues that are only now beginning to become mainstream topics.

“They realized that the way we have historically, with the war on crime, treated and defined criminal offenses by juveniles is counter-productive,” Rudovsky said.

When it comes to the recent ruling in Montgomery, attorneys agreed the ruling is hugely significant for inmates nationally and in Pennsylvania specifically. But, according to Levick, the ruling, and the ones that preceded it, will likely open up numerous new questions about allocations of burdens in juvenile sentencings, whether safeguards will need to be in place to ensure sentences are properly handled at the trial level (an issue that is already before the state Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Batts), and whether new challenges can be made against other mandatory sentencing schemes that juveniles face.

“I think that these cases give us tools and the means to bring additional challenges forward,” Levick said.

While Levick continues to look at what new arguments and opportunities these recent Supreme Court cases offer in her continuing efforts to shape juvenile criminal justice, many in Pennsylvania are still reeling from the ruling’s direct impact.

Smolarski was resentenced to 35 years to life in prison June 3. Since he’s already been in prison for 36 years, that means he now can be eligible for parole.

According to Smolarski’s attorney, Smolarski was a model inmate, and both the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office and family members of the victim agreed they would push for Smolarski to be immediately paroled. Active in the prison religious community and often speaking to younger inmates about the dangers of breaking the law, Rose said dozens of letters of support from those who had been in contact with Smolarski were presented during the resentencing hearing.

“If it wasn’t for the judges and lawyers in these cases, it would have come to naught,” Rose said.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •