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Philadelphia takes a different approach to their juvenile lifers than Michigan

Dec 16, 2016

Tyrone Jones stares out the window of his attorney's office. He is among the first of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers to gain his freedom. He continues to work to prove his innocence.
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to sentence people younger than 18 to mandatory life without parole. And just about one year ago, the court made that decision retroactive.

In Michigan, prosecutors have been testing the limits of that decision. They’re asking courts to uphold life-without-parole for most of the 363 inmates affected.

But it’s a different story in Philadelphia. The district attorney there surprised a lot of observers when he decided to re-sentence every so-called “juvenile lifer” in Philadelphia County to sentences of 20 to 35 years to life.

But not everyone is happy with what’s happening in the City of Brotherly Love.

"We don’t refer to these inmates as juvenile lifers. We refer to them as juvenile murderers," says Deputy District Attorney John Delaney.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

When Tyrone Jones was released from prison in September, he went to his attorney’s office on the 28th floor of a downtown Philadelphia office building.

What he saw was a city he didn’t recognize.

“I thought I was in a different world … a different time zone,” Jones says.

Four decades ago, Tyrone Jones entered prison at 16, as a convicted murderer, a crime he says he didn’t commit.

Back then there were no downtown buildings taller than Philadelphia’s city hall. You could see the statue of Billy Penn on the top of city hall from anywhere downtown. That has changed, and it's leaving now 60-year-old Jones at a loss.

(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)

“I mean, it’s high rise buildings everywhere … by all the buildings being here, you don’t know what street you’re on,” says Jones, “I was totally, like I was a newborn baby.”

“I think we’re deeply concerned that the outcome of all this work will be that half or more than half of these individuals will remain in prison,” says the Juvenile Law Center’s Marsha Levick
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

It’s an experience others will likely encounter as many more inmates convicted of murder as teenagers return to Philadelphia’s streets.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles is not only unconstitutional, it’s also retroactive – and those inmates should be resentenced or have a chance at parole. The ruling opens the prison doors for many who thought they would die behind bars.

In Philadelphia, there are nearly as many juvenile lifer cases as there are in the entire state of Michigan.  

John Delaney supervises the trial division in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. He oversees three assistant district attorneys handling the resentencing process for some 300 juvenile lifers.

Artist Russell Craig and Robyn Buseman, program director of the Restorative Justice program, stand next to one of the 2,000 murals produced by Philadelphia's Mural Arts program
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

Delaney says they’re starting their review with the oldest cases first.

“The majority of the offers that we have made, and we’re talking about the longest serving inmates,” says Delaney, “the majority of the offers would make the defendant eligible for parole.”

Through this process about a half-dozen former juvenile lifers left Pennsylvania prisons this year.

But the Philly DA’s approach to resentencing has come under fire.

The DA’s office is basing its approach on a Pennsylvania law passed a few years ago. It calls for mandatory minimum sentences of 20 to 35 years to life for juveniles convicted of murder.

That approach doesn’t sit well with Marsha Levick. She’s the founder of the Juvenile Law Center. Levick was a co-counsel in the lawsuit in which the Supreme Court ruled resulting in automatic, mandatory life being declared unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

Levick says the court intended cases to be considered individually – without mandatory minimum sentences.

She says prosecutors and defense attorneys are having trouble finding agreement on how to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The holding that the sentence be reserved for those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility or ill-retrievable depravity,” says Levick, “We believe those are legal standards that the court has unequivocally established. Prosecutors disagree.”

Defense attorneys also complain the DA’s resentencing process is taking too long.

And there are other complaints.

Joseph Ligon is 79 years old. He was convicted of a double homicide in 1953 when he was 15 years old. Earlier this fall, prosecutors offered a resentencing agreement that likely would have freed him from prison by Christmas. He said no.

Bradley Bridge is Ligon’s attorney. Bridge says his client wants to walk free, not into probation.

“He’s of the view that he has adequately served and paid back his debt to society by serving for nearly 64 years and anything beyond that is inappropriate,” Bridge says. “And he is willing to litigate and fight the appropriateness of that while in prison.”

Bridge is with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. He says the Philadelphia prosecutor’s insistence that all juvenile lifers get resentenced to mandatory minimum terms and probation is inappropriate.

“Maybe as a starting point,” says Bridge, "but not as an ending point as a conversation.”

Despite the complaints, Deputy District Attorney John Delaney defends the process.

“Part of what we try to do is to help the court, and to some extent the inmate, remember what the precipitating cause of all this is: That he killed somebody,” says Delaney. “And that’s why we don’t refer to these inmates as juvenile lifers. We refer to them as juvenile murderers.”

Resentencing those inmates requires going through lots and lots of documents – police reports, court transcripts, and prison records. And many cases date back 20, 30 or 40 years. That’s an issue for cash-strapped county prosecutors in Michigan. And it’s posed a challenge in Philadelphia, where paper records have been misfiled, witnesses have died, and victims’ families cannot be easily found.

“A lot of evidence that might have been available at the time of the trial may potentially no longer be available, for whatever reason,” says Dana Cook, the deputy director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “Records get destroyed. Family members and other witnesses pass away. And that’s lost evidence that we no longer have.”

Pennsylvania and Michigan rank 1st and 2nd when it comes to the number of inmates who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole when they were teenagers.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year, Cook and a handful of assistants have devoted most of their time in their cramped downtown Philadelphia office helping juvenile lifers win parole.

Cook admits it’s a challenge.

“There’s another part to this that is just as important, which is sort of the prison adjustment piece of it and how they’ve done in prison, as well as planning for reentry,” says Cook.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is taking steps to help former juvenile lifers prepare for life outside prison walls.

Several non-profits and other groups are also helping with the transition. And that help is coming in some unexpected ways.

“Well I was on the scaffold ... did the installation … did a whole lot of the painting,” says Russell Craig, as he points out parts of mural he helped create on the side of a downtown nightclub.

Craig is part of the Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program. He got involved while he served time at Graterford Prison in Philadelphia.

“I wasn’t a juvenile lifer,” Craig says, “but my mentor James Hough is a juvenile lifer. He’s, like, amazing. The world really needs to see his art and how genius this guy is, but who knows when he’ll get his chance.”

For James Hough and the other juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania’s prisons, their chance at freedom may be a long way off.

The legal wrangling is expected to continue for years, and the resentencing of juvenile lifers is expected to get more contentious as more recent cases come under review.

“I think we’re deeply concerned that the outcome of all this work will be that half or more than half of these individuals will remain in prison,” says the Juvenile Law Center’s Marsha Levick.

Levick expects questions about how Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states handle the resentencing of juvenile lifers is bound to end up back before the U.S. Supreme Court.