U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Rights Wrong On Juvenile Lifers
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.