DN Editorial: Should we throw away the keys on juvenile lifers?

Posted: October 15, 2010

MAYBE THEY'RE all "bad seeds."

Maybe all the Pennsylvania inmates serving life sentences for taking part in murders when they were kids can't be rehabilitated, no matter how long they have been incarcerated or what they've done to better themselves during that time.

Maybe there's no real difference between the two-thirds of juvenile lifers who killed their victims - like Dale Gardner, who, at age 16, killed an 11-year-old boy in FDR Park, in South Philadelphia, by smashing in his head with a rock and driving over him repeatedly with a car - and the one-third who served as lookouts or drivers when other people committed felony murders.

Maybe Pennsylvania's youth are less capable of redemption than those in New York and New Jersey, where no one is serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. Maybe Pennsylvania's kids are more vicious than any other state's: The 450 inmates serving life sentences here for crimes committed as juveniles are the most in the country. Louisiana is second, with 335, and Florida is third at 266.

If that is so, then juvenile lifers should of course be denied parole, but there's no way to fairly judge unless they have hearings. That is why Pennsylvania House Bill 1999, sponsored by state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, D-Phila., deserves support. It would require, not that anyone be freed, but that a parole hearing be granted to inmates 31 and older who have served at least 15 years, and every three years following.

It is difficult to be unmoved by the grief and anger of the mother of Dale Gardner's 11-year-old victim - called "Billy" in a recent Daily News story. As reporter Dana DiFilippo observed, cases like that of Gardner, now 38 and in the state prison in Fayette County, are not the ones whom reformers typically choose as their poster children.

But even those inmates guilty of the most heinous crimes are less culpable than adult killers, according to medical, psychological and sociological studies cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in two recent cases. One outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles; another found unconstitutional life sentences without parole for nonhomicide crimes committed by children and adolescents. Both studies were based on research that shows that, compared with adults, youth lack maturity and a developed sense of responsibility and are more susceptible to pressure from adults and peers. This underdeveloped understanding means that life sentences without parole don't serve as a deterrent to crime. At the same time, the fact that juveniles' characters are still being shaped means it is more likely that they can change in prison and have the potential for productive lives.

In hearings on Johnson's bill in August, Ashley Nellis, a research analyst for the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, called Pennsylvania's policy "extreme." The state ranks first in the nation in juvenile lifers and incarcerates more inmates who committed their crimes at the ages of 13 and 14 than does any other state. As with adult inmates, the racial disparity is significant: About 70 percent of the state's juvenile lifers are African-American.

Dale Gardner has earned college credits while in prison. He attends Catholic Mass weekly. He feels remorse for what he did and wants a chance to show he's "worth something."

It may not be enough: If Gardner eventually is given a hearing, a parole board may decide against him. But that decision would be based on his individual case, not on a policy that can no longer be justified on the basis of public safety or justice. Not all juvenile lifers deserve a second chance outside prison walls, but they deserve a chance to make the case for one. *

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