As many of you know, I am employed by the public defender office in Philadelphia. I am currently working in a unit dedicated to assisting people who were juveniles when sentenced to life without parole for homicide.
The United States has 2000 people in prison who are serving juvenile life sentences. Pennsylvania has approximately 500, and Philadelphia has 300 of these cases. My office represents 225 of these Philadelphians. These individuals were minors when they were convicted of first or second degree murder and Pennsylvania law mandated life without parole. There was no discretion possible by the judge or on behalf of the court system.
Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have overturned the mandatory life sentencing laws and made it retroactive that juveniles cannot serve life without parole; it is unconstitutional. The basis of these decisions, in short, is that the court system must consider all factors before sentencing a juvenile to life. These factors include family social history, medical and mental health concerns, neighborhood influence, education, and so many more. My job is to research these mitigating factors to be presented to the courts for a re-sentencing.
The first year of our work is dedicated to working with clients who have been in prison 35 years or longer. Some of the clients I’m working with now have been in 40+ years for crimes they were involved with when they were 14 or 15 years old. These can be senior citizens now who will be returning to a world or communities that are very different than it was when they were still kids. Some do not have any living family to return to, and others have relatives they correspond with but have never met. One thing stands out for all of them, and that is excitement and fear of the future. They are going to need a great deal of support when they are released and help getting through the wait time until they are released. Once clients are re-sentenced in court they must face the parole board that will make the final decision about their release. Anxiety is difficult to manage when you are in prison and know your whole world could soon be very different.
I am writing this to invite you to take up communication with one of these men who are in need of some grounding support in the community. Some of these guys need someone to talk to in letters and/or in visits so they can begin to interact with people outside of the prison system. Others need someone to help them start to think about re-entry and create goals to work towards once they are released. These are accomplished people; many have completed GED and college credits or degrees during their incarceration. It’s common for these men to have learned several trades and be mentors within the prison system. I think these are amazing individuals for having endured so much of their lives away from society and to have achieved so much when they had no hope for release.
A few Old Firsters to whom I have already spoken have agreed to take on such a relationship.
To discuss further or to tell me of your interest, please talk to me at church, or email or call (my contact info. is in the online members’ directory in REALM or you can get it from the church office. And if you even just want to take a single, small step… if you want to send a holiday card to someone in prison, please let me know and I can provide you with more information.
Here are a few links of news stories about this movement to get these people re-sentenced and released:
We talk and pray about mass incarcertation often around Old First, the Philly Association, the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference and the national setting of the UCC. Here’s an opportunity to be involved personally.