Karen Heller: Life terms for juveniles?

Pa. is the U.S. leader in jailing young people without any hope of parole.

Posted: July 18, 2010

The United States leads the world in incarcerating juveniles for life without the possibility of parole. And Pennsylvania leads all states, by far, in a practice most nations condemn as inhumane.

"Pennsylvania is at the top, and not in a good way," says the Juvenile Law Center's Marsha Levick. The state has at least 450 inmates charged with homicide committed when they were juveniles, some as young as 14.

"International standards recognize that children, a particularly vulnerable group, are entitled to special care and protection because they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally," argues a 2005 Human Rights Watch report.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for any charge other than homicide, citing the country's "evolving standards of decency" and the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

On Friday, based on that decision, a group of area lawyers filed post-conviction release petitions in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Dauphin Counties on behalf of five inmates sentenced as juveniles who are now serving LWOP for homicide. Three cases involve robberies ending in murder committed by a codefendant.

What does it say about a society that locks up juveniles and says they have no chance for redemption, rehabilitation, and change? Are prisons places to educate, discipline, and reform inmates - correctional institutions - or are they human warehouses to incarcerate people until they die?

Joseph Ligon was 15 when he and five boys from South Philadelphia went on a crime spree, killing two men and stabbing six others.

Ligon was sentenced to life without parole. In 1953.

He's now 73. He has spent more than half a century in prison, mostly at Graterford.

"It's simply wrong to look upon him as the same person who committed the crimes," says Bradley S. Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "He has done all that we, as a society, would want him to do," adding that "he's gone through rehabilitation."

The Supreme Court's May decision and its 2005 ruling banning capital punishment of juveniles cite neuroscientific evidence of the developmental difference between children and adults. "Their brains are not fully formed. They don't understand the consequences of their actions. They're more susceptible to peer pressure," Bridge argues.

Pennsylvania's juvenile incarceration rate is so high because the state requires LWOP for all defendants convicted of first- or second-degree murder, whether they are adults or juveniles. This mandate deprives judges of discretionary sentencing. Following the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when juvenile homicide rates soared, the state pushed more teens into the adult system, even for first-time offenses.

And yet the practice has had no noticeable effect on reducing crime.

Meanwhile, costs keep rising, with $1.8 billion appropriated for prisons next year. The state spends an average of $32,000 annually on each of more than 51,000 inmates. With age, health costs can accelerate to $200,000 a year, ironically at the time when an inmate is at the lowest risk of committing criminal violence.

"Punishment without rehabilitation is a failure," says Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), Judiciary Committee chair, who has held hearings on juvenile sentencing. "Everybody's entitled to second chances."

Many inmates have committed horrible crimes. No one is protesting their innocence.

"The challenge we're raising isn't letting them all out on the streets," says Temple law professor Sara Jacobson. "We are just asking for the possibility of parole and redemption, that what an inmate has done in prison for years and years should count. That you've been good, and understand what you've done."

Jacobson is handling the petition of John Pace, who committed a second-degree felony in Philadelphia at 17, during a robbery, assaulting a victim who later died. Upon advice of counsel, Pace pleaded guilty, believing he would receive a reduced sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to life without parole.

A juvenile's failure to grasp the consequences of his actions as well as the complexity of the legal system puts him at a severe disadvantage compared with adults. Pace is now 42, having served almost a quarter-century at Graterford.

Yet children grow. Teenagers can be dumb. They can do terribly wrong things. But they can learn.

"Kids have a capacity for change," says Levick. "They have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults." Children enter the criminal-justice system "without us knowing enough about them at the time of sentencing," she argues. Instead, Levick says, the approach is "let's lock them up and throw away the keys."

Last month, State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson (D., Phila.) introduced a bill abolishing juvenile life imprisonment without parole, allowing prisoners to apply at age 31 for parole, then every three years thereafter. Current inmates could appeal for resentencing. Meanwhile, lawyers are hopeful their petitions will prod the judicial system to reexamine sentencing.

At age 73, Ligon "looks like somebody's grandfather," Bridge says. "He's no longer a danger to anyone." He's lived almost all of his life in prison.

"To continue his incarceration seems cruel and unseemly. It says something rather bad about our society when we do not allow people to demonstrate, by any objective criteria, that they have changed," Bridge says. "It's simply medieval."

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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