Lawmakers disagree with life sentences for juveniles

Post Date: March 14, 2017

Originally seen in The Philadelphia Tribunal 

It wasn’t long ago — June 2016 to be exact — when Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams spoke passionately about providing juvenile offenders with “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

It turns out, however, that light may just have well been a freight train preparing to some head-on with the harshest of penalties — life without parole.

In an apparent flip-flop, the two-term chief prosecutor recently notified a federal court that he’s seeking life sentences — without the possibility of parole — for three juvenile offenders.

His decision has even his allies confounded.

“I have worked closely with the district attorney on a lot of criminal justice reform matters and his office has been very helpful on many issues,” said State Rep. Jordan Harris, D-186. “On many things, we agree. On this, we disagree.”

While the cases that Williams is pursuing have not been made public because the suspects are underage, Harris and others are particularly concerned given that Black people convicted of murder or sexual assault are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be later found innocent of the crimes, according to a review of nearly 2,000 exonerations nationwide over almost three decades.

Innocent Blacks also had to wait disproportionately longer for their names to be cleared than innocent whites, the review, released this month by the National Registry of Exonerations, found.

Blacks wrongfully convicted of murder, for example, spent an average of three more years in prison before being released than whites who were cleared.

Further, while African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise a whopping 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations in the registry.

Philadelphia reportedly has 300 juveniles serving life in prison, more than any other city in America.

“I certainly think the new report speaks to the whole issue of fairness of the judicial process and I hope our District Attorney is paying attention,” said State Rep. James Roebuck Jr., D-188.

“The idea of the inequities in the sentencings suggests that he should not act in haste,” Roebuck said.

State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-201, said he’s not a proponent of life without parole sentences for juveniles even though there are numerous crimes that are very egregious in nature that result in punishment for that specific crime.

“I don’t agree with a one size fits all approach, each case has its own merit and particular circumstance for that crime. Life without parole has not deterred crime, nor has it done anything with the possible rehabilitation of juveniles, that have been convicted without parole,” Kinsey said.

“I believe that this is an antiquated practice and if you look across the country, most justice systems and the folks who work in it, lawyers and judges, would agree that this practice needs to change. So now as it presently exists, I don’t think we should continue to give juveniles life without parole,” he said.

State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-195, said the recent registry and other anecdotal stories have shown that efforts should be made to rehabilitate African Americans and other young offenders.

“Life without parole doesn’t allow for that,” she said.

“I had a gentleman come to my office, he was sentenced at 15 years old and released after serving 47 years. Now, we’re working to find employment and other services for him. I think our country is better than this and we should find other ways to work with these individuals and to return them back to society as a contributing citizen. I hope [Seth] Williams will review his policies in light of what’s been out,” Bullock said.

For his part, Williams, through a spokesperson, said he’s very much aware of the historic disparate treatment that existed between Black, Brown and white homicide defendants.

“For the last seven years, [Williams] has worked diligently to correct any past injustice and to create an environment where Brown and Black citizens feel everyone, no matter the color of their skin, is treated fairly,” Williams’ spokesperson Cameron Kline said.

“Currently, the office is reviewing 300 cases where defendants received life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. To date, the office has made individualized sentencing offers in 96 cases, most of which would make the defendant immediately eligible for parole,” Kline said.

“In only three cases, all extremely heinous crimes, the offer was life without parole. The District Attorney’s Office strives to dispense justice in a fair and consistent manner,” Kline continued.

Still, Harris said Williams must consider what he called obvious factors.

“It’s so important for the district attorney to play a major role in the sentencing part or the recommendation of sentencing and even how he charges folks when they first enter the process,” Harris said.

“We know there is science behind the fact that young people don’t have cognitive reasoning skills and, based on that, we don’t let them vote until they are 18, we don’t let them drink until they are 21 and we don’t let them marry without parental permission until 18,” he said.

“We know they don’t have the ability to make a good decision and, if we accept that as true, then how can we charge a juvenile with the same sentence that we charge a cognitive mature adult? When we do that to our children, we are saying they are beyond repair and that they can’t be corrected. Our criminal justice system should not agree with this sentencing of life without parole.”