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Life means life – teenagers condemned to die in prison

interior-juvenilesPublished in The Age on January 17, 2015.

All photographs are courtesy of Richard Ross, from his series Juvenile in Justice. They show detention centres for young offenders. Most children tried as adults serve their sentences in adult jails.

John Pace spent his last day of freedom at the house in West Philadelphia that he shared with his mum, his six brothers and four sisters. It was September 18, 1985 and summer was coming to an end. In the early evening, he set out for his friend’s place, some grass in his pocket and a wine cooler in his hand. Wine mixed with fruit juice and fizzy water was no drink for a man, but that was alright. He was seventeen years old.

His friend’s mother ran a speakeasy in her flat on the council estate at 56th Street and Arch, where there was always beer and marijuana to be had and Run DMC, Slick Rick or LL Cool J playing on the stereo. After buying some Valium, Pace settled in for a night of getting stoned and listening to rap music.

On his way home, at around three in the morning, he spotted another man walking alone on Arch Street and decided to mug him. Robbing someone would impress his crew, and he was short of money. Although he wasn’t much of a fighter and had never committed a violent crime, he carried a rubber cosh.

He can’t remember the struggle, except that it didn’t last long before a police car pulled up. He didn’t have time to steal anything, and his victim, Randolph Baldwin, only had some leftovers in a brown bag anyway. When the cop shone a torch in his face, Pace was so drunk he didn’t try to run. Baldwin was on the ground, knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. He died ten days later.

In February 1986 Pace pled guilty to second degree murder, in the mistaken belief that he would be out of prison in fifteen years. The sentencing judge handed down the only punishment that Pennsylvania law allowed: life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. Unless the United States Supreme Court intervenes, or the Governor of Pennsylvania grants him clemency, Pace will die behind bars.

The USA is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. Although plenty of other countries, including Australia, the UK and France, have life sentences for juveniles tried as adults, they are subject to review, on the understanding that even the gravest debts to society incurred by adolescents can eventually be repaid.

“The propriety of the sentence is, in many ways, uniquely American,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. “We are much more comfortable with this idea that somebody is permanently irredeemable or beyond rehabilitation, or that they have forfeited forever their right to be free.” Around 2,500 people are serving strict life terms for offences committed before they were old enough to vote, serve on a jury, or legally buy cigarettes.

In Pennsylvania, criminal homicide is excluded from juvenile law. Last October, ten-year-old Tristen Kurilla was charged with murder, in the adult system, after reportedly confessing to killing a ninety-year-old woman. There are around five hundred people locked up indefinitely for youthful crimes in the state – more than anywhere else.

Many of them are housed at Graterford prison, an hour north-west of Philadelphia. After corresponding with Pace, I visited him there one day in December.

On my way in, a guard, mistaking me for a lawyer, said “are you going to get Mr Ligon out of here? It’s ridiculous that he’s here.” Joe Ligon is the longest-serving Pennsylvania lifer of all. In February 1953, at the age of fifteen, he ran with a gang that stabbed two people dead. It’s doubtful that he was personally responsible for either murder. But later the same year, he pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. He has been there ever since.interior-juveniles4

“If you come in here at a young age, you can get stuck in a certain place,” Pace told me, hinting that Ligon has been irreparably damaged by his sixty-one years and counting in jail. “That’s what long term incarceration can do.”

It would be hard to spend more than a few minutes with Pace without concluding that some young killers deserve a second chance and that rehabilitation is possible, even in a system that is primarily set up to contain and to punish. He has led a chapter of the Prison Literacy Project, run a law clinic for fellow lifers and been an instructor at an Inside-Out programme that pairs prisoners with college students.

His father, his mother and three of his brothers have died during his time in jail, but his relentlessly positive outlook does not allow him to consider that he may never be released. “I know it’s going to happen,” he said. “There is something inherently wrong with the stance that children are incapable of changing.”

In the last decade, the American legal system has recognised that children tried as adults for serious offences merit special treatment. In a landmark 2005 decision, Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death because, by their nature, they are less culpable than adults.

Teenagers are less able to assess risks and consequences and more susceptible to peer pressure, noted Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion. He wrote: “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

Five years later, in Graham v Florida, the court held that the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution also prohibits life without parole sentences for minors who commit crimes other than murder, citing emerging neuroscience showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, particularly in areas associated with impulse control.

“What the court has said is that kids are fundamentally different, that their unique characteristics as children have to be accounted for, and that our harshest of punishments are not appropriate.” says Jody Kent Lavy, Director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.

interior-juveniles3Pace spent the morning of June 25, 2012 watching cable news alone in his cell. For weeks, his fellow lifers had been passing round transcripts of the oral arguments in Miller v Alabama, trying to discern which way the Supreme Court would rule, but now that an announcement was due, the tension in the day room was too much to bear.

CNN was covering another case, live from the court steps, where Tea Party and pro-immigrant protesters waited to hear whether Arizona’s ‘Show Me Your Papers’ law would be allowed to stand. The news that mattered was delivered in passing: by a 5-4 majority, the justices had ruled that, even for homicide, mandatory sentences of life without parole may not be imposed on juveniles.

Pace rushed out of his cell. “It was such an elation. I had done twenty-seven years and finally the courts acknowledged it.” There were prisoners dancing on the block. Men who had known nothing but prison their whole adult lives discussed where they would stay when they got out and what they were most looking forward to, as if the court had declared them free to go. More than two years later almost all are still incarcerated.

Post-Miller, any case where prosecutors seek life without parole for a juvenile must be treated like a death penalty case, with the higher standard of defence counsel and lengthy appeals process that implies. The defendant’s age must be considered, along with a list of potential mitigating factors, designed to ensure that the punishment is reserved for the most horrendous crimes and the most irredeemable sociopaths.

The ruling did not say what to do with men like Pace, though, who made their one unimaginably costly mistake long ago. Nine state supreme courts have ruled that Miller should be applied retroactively and begun to re-sentence the prisoners it applies to. Five others, including Pennsylvania, have held that it should not.

That means that in Washington, Jeremiah Bourgeois, who shot the owner of a corner shop when he was fourteen, will soon be free after spending two decades in prison. In Massachusetts, Frederick Christian, accomplice to a drug robbery that left three men dead twenty years ago, was unanimously granted parole. But in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan and Minnesota, people who committed similar crimes remain locked up indefinitely.

In December, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Toca v Louisiana, that should decide whether the Miller decision will be back-dated. If it goes the same way as Simmons, Graham and Miller, all of which were 5-4 decisions carried by the Supreme Court’s liberal minority, plus Justice Kennedy, all five hundred of Pennsylvania’s teenage lifers, and another fifteen hundred across the USA, will need to be re-sentenced – not just worthy candidates like Pace but rapists, torturers, child abusers and cop killers too.

To the National Organisation of the Victims of Juvenile Murderers, that is an appalling prospect. Darryl Romig Sr’s twelve-year-old daughter, Danni Rees, was raped and strangled by a seventeen-year-old boy, Brian Bahr. “If they go back and re-sentence these kids, all the victims are going to have to go through it all again. It’s going to open a lot of wounds,” Romig says. “I don’t get to see my daughter grow up. Why should the boy have the right to be put away and then, somewhere down the line, come back out?”

In his dissent to the Miller ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the US Constitution has no regard for a defendant’s age. “Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers… But that is not our decision to make,” he wrote. “A decent society protects the innocent from violence. A mature society may determine that this requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst.”

He also wondered where the majority’s reasoning would lead: “Unless confined, the only stopping point for the Court’s analysis would be never permitting juvenile offenders to be tried as adults.” This is the great hope of criminal justice reformers, and the great fear of the ‘tough on crime’ lobby.

At present, only mandatory life without parole sentences are banned for minors – more than twenty states still offer judges the option of life without parole, and in others, new minimum sentences of between twenty and forty years have been introduced for juvenile killers. In states that have begun reviewing old life sentences, many defendants are being re-sentenced… to life without parole. The Governor of Iowa simply commuted the sentences of all affected prisoners to a minimum of sixty years, regardless of their crime or the extent of their rehabilitation.interior-juveniles2

Only six states have abolished the sentence entirely. One reason it persists is that prosecutors are reluctant to lose a bargaining chip. Threatened with a strict life term, twenty years can seem like a good deal to a teenager charged with murder, whether he’s guilty or not.

In September, Pope Francis will visit Pennsylvania. When the trip was announced, last July, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth sent a letter to the juvenile lifers in the state. One side was printed with an appeal to the pontiff, asking him to come to Graterford prison. The other was left blank for prisoners to write a personal message.

Pace wrote about a recurring dream he used to have, in which the streets of Philadelphia became the corridors of a prison as he walked along them. The Pope said he was “deeply moved” by the letters, and in October he called for life imprisonment to be abolished and said that adult criminal penalties should not apply to children.

“I haven’t had that dream for a while,” says Pace. “There used to be a time when I would wake up and think: ‘When is this going to be over with? When is enough enough?’ But now I’m optimistic that juvenile lifers are going to get that opportunity.” Although the Supreme Court’s ruling is expected by June, he knows better than to expect miracles.