They were told as teenagers that they would never get out of prison, but in the last two years, more than 70 men and two women sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole have returned home to Philadelphia — and a world drastically different from the one they were removed from decades ago, as children.
They are former “juvenile lifers,” who were convicted as teenagers of murder or felony murder – that is, participating in a crime that ended in a death — and were sentenced to mandatory terms of life in prison without parole (JLWOP), meaning that a judge had no choice but to impose that sentence. After decades in prison, many are now 50 and 60 years old. They are trying to find work, housing, and education, learn technology, and deal with the other demands of modern life.
Soon they will be followed by others who now have a chance at freedom because of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The first case, Miller v. Alabama, in 2012, responded to scientific evidence of the diminished culpability of teenagers because of their immaturity and susceptibility to peer pressure. The ruling declared that mandatory life sentences without parole for youth are unconstitutional and that context must be considered before sentencing a child to die in prison.
The second, Montgomery v. Louisiana, decided just two years ago, made that finding retroactive for all 2,000-plus juvenile lifers in the United States.
It’s a life-changing moment, but the challenge of building new lives on the outside is daunting, and in many ways it is more difficult for former juvenile lifers than for other formerly incarcerated men and women.
At the time of the Montgomery decision, nearly a quarter of all juvenile lifers in the country had been sentenced in Pennsylvania and more than 300 in Philadelphia. In the two years since, more than 230 men and women have been re-sentenced statewide, and many more could be released in the near future. As a recent Inquirer article noted, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has taken a new approach to extending offers in JLWOP cases, which reflect the individualized circumstances of each situation.
The Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP) has created a new online tool, the Pennsylvania JLWOP Reentry Navigator, to make it easier for former juvenile lifers to locate resources in the community, including those that can help with housing, behavioral health, physical health, food and clothing, education, employment and volunteer opportunities, government assistance and public benefits, faith-based services, identification documents, voter registration, senior services, life skills training, case management, and transportation.
Resentencing and parole decision-makers are particularly interested in the supports and plans that a juvenile lifer has in place for when he or she returns to the community, and the Navigator can help locate them.
The need for the Navigator grew out of training we conducted inside of nearly every prison in the state with juvenile lifers. We asked what concerns they had about reentering society, and what questions they had about navigating life on the outside. The Navigator responds directly to these questions and concerns, and now exists as a resource to support folks planning to return home, as well as those who have already returned home.
We are working to help all juvenile lifers have the best possible chance at this important and overdue opportunity.
Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian are co-directors of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project.