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Monday, August 9, 2010

Pennsylvania's Locking Up Kids For LIFE* LWOP

. 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.

. "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."

*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


Nicole Pittman, Esq
Juvenile Justice Policy Analyst Attorney
Defender Association of Philadelphia
1441 Sansom Street, Rm 1038
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Direct: 267.765.6766
Fax: 267.765.6993

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