Anita Colon was crying when she received the telephone call, but the caller knew hers were tears of joy.
The caller was her brother dialing her from a prison in Pennsylvania, where he is one of 480 persons serving a life-without-parole sentence for a crime ending in homicide, committed while they were teens.
Pennsylvania prisons hold America’s largest number of teen lifers.
Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, called his sister less than one hour after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week announced its ruling outlawing mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide.
“I was choking back tears when he called, and he knew by my voice it had to be good,” Colon said.
Colon is the Pennsylvania Coordinator of the National Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, an organization opposed to juvenile life without parole sentences, which were voided by America’s highest court this week. The Supreme Court ruled that such sentencing violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
America has an ugly distinction regarding its practice of placing teens in prison until they die.
America – a nation that prides itself on freedom – stands “alone in the world” in its laws permitting the imposition of juvenile life sentences with no option for parole, according to a report released by the D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
Twenty-eight states and the federal system sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for homicides. There are over 2,500 such juvenile lifers languishing in prisons around the nation.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling still permits life-without-parole sentences for teens sentenced without mandatory provisions, Colon and other activists still consider the ruling a significant step in the right direction for persons who were sentenced to prison for decades for crimes committed when they were basically children.
The oldest juvenile-sentenced-lifer in Pennsylvania’s prison system is currently in his mid-70s. He received his sentence for murder in 1953 when he was just 15-years-old.
That man received his life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed before he could legally drive, drink, vote, marry, enlist in the military or even reason rationally, according to scientific evidence about juvenile brain development now recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justices utilized that evidence when they outlawed juvenile mandatory life without parole, juvenile life for non-homicides and the death penalty for juveniles.
Anita Colon became an activist on the issue of teen lifers following the conviction of her brother.
Holbrook received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for serving as a look-out on his 16th birthday for a drug-related 1990 robbery in Philadelphia that ended in a homicide. Holbrook didn’t commit that murder.
“He was happy but cautiously optimistic about the Court’s ruling,” Colon said.
“He knows the fight for release is not over but the ruling is an important victory. Now we have to fight for justice when courts and parole boards start conducting the reviews resulting from the ruling.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling outlawing mandatory life without parole sentences is
the third in a series of rulings that have reversed hard-line legal and court stances on teens that have meted out severe adult punishment to juvenile offenders. In 2005 the High Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. In 2009 it struck down juvenile life without parole for offenses other than murder.
Conservative politicians and prosecutors champion life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, contending teens who commit heinous crimes must be held strictly accountable.
However, data indicates that many of the teens slammed with these walking-death-sentence terms are not cold-blooded killers –- the type of criminal projected as most deserving to die in prison.
In Pennsylvania approximately 26 percent of juvenile lifers did not commit a homicide themselves –- receiving convictions under legal measures mandating mandatory sentencing for anyone involved in a felony murder irrespective of their level of participation in that crime.
Further, almost 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers where first-time offenders – not the habitual violent offenders normally considered legitimate candidates for the medieval-style until-they-die imprisonment.
Anita Colon said that many of the politicians and prosecutors she’s talked with hold grave misconceptions about juvenile lifer laws.
“Many of the legislators in Pennsylvania that I’ve talked to don’t even understand that life in prison means spending the rest of your life in prison. They’ve told me these sentences don’t exist,” Colon said.
“Even many prosecutors say these sentences are only for the worst of the worst. But my brother was a first time offender.”
In Michigan, for example, which holds the nation’s second largest teen lifer population at 350+, about half of those convictions were for aiding and abetting murder, not committing the murder itself.
Given the pervasive race bias in America’s criminal justice system it’s not surprising that most teen lifers are African-American.
“Two-thirds of Michigan’s juvenile lifers are African American,” Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Gerritt wrote, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. Gerritt criticized Michigan legislators for lacking the “courage and compassion to strike down the state’s draconian juvenile lifer law.”
In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the juvenile lifers are African American and nine percent are Hispanic.
That percentage of black juvenile lifers in ennsylvania’s prison system exceeds the percentage of black adult lifers (62%), according to statistics compiled by Bradley Bridge, a lawyer for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who has litigated juvenile lifer cases since 2005.
Over half of the state’s 480 juvenile lifers come from a single jurisdiction: Philadelphia, the city/county that also sends the highest percentage of people, again most of them Black, to Pennsuylvania’s death row.
Philadelphia lawyer/writer David Love said too few people look at the “reality” of incarceration costs of juvenile life sentences.
Pennsylvania spends in excess of $15-million annually to incarcerate its juvenile lifers. That dollar figure increases annually as young inmates grow older, as a result of soaring costs for medical, security and other services required for elderly inmates.
At one Pennsylvania state prison just the long-term care for infirm elderly inmates costs $63,000 annually per inmate, over $30,000 more than the annual cost for younger inmates.
Love, executive director of the Witness to Innocence Project, said, “People were sold a bill of goods by politicians and prosecutors that we have to be tough on crime. Now we have a confluence of hard economic times and the failures of criminal justice system policies. States are realizing they can’t afford to lock people up because that is taking money from education and social welfare needs.”
The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers supports life without parole laws stating there are “bad seeds” unfit to live outside prison walls.
Activists like Anita Colon agree that some teen criminals deserve harsh sentences, but say that others sentenced as teens deserve a second chance denied to them by mandatory sentencing…at least an opportunity to convince a judge or parole board that they’ve earned the opportunity for a second chance.
“I hope the end result [of the Supreme Court’s ruling] is a sentencing scheme that is more flexible and equitable,” Colon said.
“However people think about our justice system, it should operate to allow judges to use their experience in sentencing taking into account factors like culpability. Mandatory laws strip judges of their discretion in sentencing.”
Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, wrote in a 2008 essay that “a child offender” who makes a terrible decision as a youth receives less “justice and leniency” than in countries like China and Libya.
“When the law preys on its child offenders…it is no better than the criminal predators that prey on children in society,” Holbrook wrote.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.