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

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Anita Colon was crying when she received the telephone call but the caller knew hers were tears of joy.

The caller was Colon's brother calling 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 a teen.

Pennsylvania prisons hold America's largest number of teen lifers.

Colon's brother, Robert Holbrook, called her less than one hour after the U.S. Supreme Court recently 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 voided by America's highest court that ruled such sentencing violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

America carries an ugly distinction regarding its practice of placing teens in prison until they die.

America -- the 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 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 in prison for decades due to crimes committed when they were basically children.

The oldest juvenile-sentenced-lifer in Pennsylvania's prison system is in his mid-70s, receiving his sentence for murder in 1953 when he was 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 that utilized that evidence when outlawing 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 ruling reversing hard-line stances on teens that meted severe adult punishment to juvenile offenders. In 2005 the Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. In 2009 the Court struck down juvenile life without parole for offenses other than murder.

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Linn Washington is a weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune and This Can't Be Happening. Washington writes frequently on inequities in the criminal justice system, ills in society and failings of the news media. He teaches multi-media urban (more...)
 
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