John Ligon – From Being Down To Persevering, When Others Don’t See It But You

In the wake of justice, John Ligon had finally received what he believed would happen – a release from prison without parole. Why would someone wait 68 years for this?

John Ligon was the son of sharecroppers from the state of Alabama. John dropped out of school before he was middle school aged. John’s family relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when he was 13 years old. At this time his family wanted him to go back to school. John was new in town and lacked the education most teenagers had at the time. In 1953, when John turned 15-years old, he was charged in Pennsylvania for being part of a group of teenagers involved in a spree of robbery and assaults that led to the murder of two individuals. John admits to being part of this teenage group that did those crimes. Yet, John denies ever killing anyone. John states that the murders had the front pages of newspapers claiming the group he was in had been called “The Head Hunters,” but he denies that group ever being a gang. These convictions led to a life in prison without the possibility of parole.

During this period the United States was a world leader for imprisoning juveniles without the ability to get parole. Until 2016, the state of Pennsylvania had the most juveniles serving life sentences. Around sixty percent of this prison population had been from Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest big cities, and a high percentage of them were Black. The cost to lock up John for so long was $3 million, excluding the cancer treatments he received. John is currently in the remission phase. He is an example of the high expense to incarcerate elderly prisoners due to their demand for health needs; despite them likely being less of a danger to society.

Interestingly enough, John mentions he is a stubborn person, stating “I was born that way.” Yet, he wanted the freedom to be able to go anywhere he wanted without having to check in with no one. This is important as John did get an opportunity to get released on parole after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life terms for minors who were convicted of murder in 2012. Yet, John wanted a life without a parole officer, stating “with parole you got to see people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.” Even at that time, many prisoners wanted John to not think that way and told him that this is his opportunity to be out in the free world. Even a former juvenile lifer, John Pace, who is now a reentry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project counseled John and told him, “if you want to fight, fight when you get out.” John knew how he wanted to live life once he was able to get freedom— that was not it.

John had a dedicated lawyer to help him with the ability to live that life of freedom he desired. Bradley Bridge, a public defender, was John’s lawyer of 15 years. He had a mission to release John on the terms John sought. This took gathering as much information about John’s background as possible, locating all school transcripts and prison records that spanned over the entire time John was incarcerated. Bridge argued that John’s sentencing was part of cruel and unusual punishment, specifically stating that “… if this went to trial today, Joe Ligon would be found guilty of robbery, aggravated assault, or attempted murder, and he would have gotten a sentence of five to 10 years.” During this time, in 2016, John was then eligible for parole but opted out to spend four more years in prison. Even at that time, the judge explained to John “I do not want you to die in prison.” Yet, John wanted to do whatever it took to be free from any type of sentencing tied to the convictions he received as a 15-year-old.

After the four additional years spent in prison, John eventually got what he wanted and was released from prison. John had 10 plus city organizations in Philadelphia assisting him in getting John a foster-care-like accommodation with a family who opened their home to him after his release. Additionally, John was able to get the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services to work on compensating John’s living expenses he would be able to receive that first year. Moreover, John was given a benefits specialist to work on John being able to receive Social Security after that year ends. The support John received was tremendous and assisted in his ability to live the life he knew he would be able to after his release.

The reason John waited those extra years to be released from prison was to show that the fight to live a life you wanted is attainable. The daring obstacles John mostly put on himself was his choice. He knew he could get released with parole earlier than his actual release date, but that is not what he wanted. Even when public opinion and others close to John told him a viable way out if it was not what he wished for he kept surviving and advocating for what he believed in. John even mentions “we’ve been to hell and back,” so why not get what you wish for. John is a true story of perseverance.

Bryan ISD Investigated for School-Based Ticketing Due To Disparate Impact on African-American Students

From NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:

In a letter sent to LDF, the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed it will investigate a complaint  that we and Texas Appleseed filed which challenges the “disparate impact” that Bryan school district’s practice of issuing criminal citations for minor misbehavior has on African-American students, who are ticketed at four times the rate of their peers.

“This investigation sends a strong message to school districts around the country that the government takes seriously allegations that police are criminalizing children in school instead of keeping them safe,” said Rachel Kleinman, Assistant Counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

“We are pleased that OCR is pursuing this important issue and look forward to working with the Department of Education and the Bryan school district to find more positive approaches to improving student behavior and keeping more children in class and out of the court system,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler.

Ann Boney, President of the Brazos County NAACP, said, “We are pleased that we will move forward with this issue and begin developing a positive approach that will benefit all concerned parties.”

African-American students comprised only 21% of the Bryan district’s student population in 2011-12, but received 53% of all tickets issued last year for Disruption of Class and 51% for Disorderly Conduct-Language (profanity). While the Texas lawmakers passed legislation this spring ending school-based ticketing in most cases, school districts can still file formal complaints and send students to court for the same types of minor misbehavior.

“In a very real sense, districts like Bryan are using law enforcement as a disciplinary tool, leading students into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Senior Attorney Michael Harris, with the National Center for Youth Law. “But research shows these matters are far better handled by educators and parents.”

We are asking OCR to require Bryan ISD to provide additional training for school police officers in adolescent behavior, conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques. We are strongly encouraging implementation of nationally-tested programs shown to reduce disciplinary problems and boost academics—such as School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Our complaint also proposes:

  • Revisions to the Bryan Student Code of Conduct to establish graduated consequences for misbehavior that minimize missed class time and reserve suspension, expulsion, and police responses to student misbehavior to only those incidents that pose a safety risk;
  • Required campus-based quarterly reporting of data on ticketing and school-related arrests, by type of incident disaggregated by race; and
  • Intervention services for students who receive multiple Class C citations and/or disciplinary referrals and who are at risk of educational failure.

It is a common practice in Texas for school districts to bring in the criminal system to handle issues with students that many people should be dealt with internally. The school-to-prison pipeline in Texas is used way too often and it is about time the Department of Education notices. Hopefully this investigation will lead to the elimination of this disparate impact practice.

What the United States and Somalia Have in Common

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390
photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that sentences people to die in prison for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday.  In other words, the United States is unique in that it allows, and in fact sometimes requires, our justice system to sentence individuals to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before turning eighteen years old.  The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child bans sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.  Besides the United States, Somalia is the only other country that has failed to ratify the treaty.  In many ways an innovative instrument, the convention is the first international treaty enacted to implement minimum standards for the protection of children’s rights, guaranteeing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights to children.  Focused on the four general principles, non-discrimination, best interests of the child, right to life, survival, and development, and views of the child, the treaty recognizes the special vulnerabilities of children and acknowledges their ever-evolving capabilities.  While the U.S. has failed to ratify the Convention, it has adopted two of its optional provisions, Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, preventing governments from forcing children under the age of eighteen into compulsorily duty in the armed forces and Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, prohibiting the sale of children as well as child prostitution and pornography.  Additionally, in 1992, the U.S. ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which required rehabilitation to be the focus of juvenile punishment, however the U.S. has reserved the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole in extreme cases involving severe criminals and hardened crimes.

Utilizing the punishment much more often than anywhere else in the world, the practice gained the most support in the 1980s and 1990s when the country saw a spike in violent crimes committed by youth, garnering a wealth of media coverage, and causing politicians to adopt “tough on crime” policies in an attempt to quell public apprehensions.  According to a report by The Sentencing Project, there has been an increase in life sentences given across the board for all offenders, adults and youth alike, with individuals serving life sentences without the possibility of parole increasing by nearly 10,000 in just four years from 2008 to 2012.  By allowing individuals to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday, the United States is neglecting to account for the vast differences that exist between adult and youth offenders, including but not limited to poverty, childhood abuse, and youthfulness in general, all factors that can contribute to the crime committed.  Placing rehabilitation at the center of juvenile punishments acknowledges the notion that youth are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally and because they are continually learning, expanding, and growing, they are capable of benefitting exceptionally from rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.

With about 2,500 youth offenders currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, a change in attitude toward juvenile crimes is definitely needed, but has America recognized this need?  Two recent Supreme Court cases, Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), may lend support for an answer in the affirmative.  In Graham, the Court stated that because of the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional differences between juveniles and adults, individuals under the age of eighteen at the time of committing a crime cannot be given sentences of life without the possibility of parole unless charged with homicide.  The Court in Miller determined that states cannot imprison juveniles under laws that mandatorily impose life sentences without the possibility of parole as a penalty for homicide.  Viewing the imposition of mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles without considering age and other relevant factors as a violation of the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, Graham and Miller are steps in the right direction towards recognizing the extensive differences between juvenile and adult offenders. However, yet another question now surfaces.  Should the holding in Miller, with the potential of having life changing effects for thousands of already incarcerated offenders, be applied retroactively to the approximately 2,000 prisoners who are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole under statutes such as the one discussed in Miller?  Youth cannot be given life sentences unless their proceedings are transferred out of the juvenile justice system and into adult court, as no such sentence is available through the juvenile system.  To pose an even broader question, should juveniles ever be transferred to adult court in the first place?  With approximately 2,000 youth offenders convicted under statutes like those outlawed by Miller serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, many of them could potentially be given a second chance by applying the Miller holding retroactively or alternatively, could have benefitted from refusing the transfer of youth to the adult system in the first place.  Furthermore, as a nation, are there things we could be doing on the front end to reduce some of the societal indicators that have a tendency of being associated with youth committing crimes before they turn eighteen?  Some argue that by focusing energy and efforts towards the reduction of child poverty, protection from child abuse, expansion of access to mental health and other support services, and improvement in school quality youth might not end up in a courtroom confronting in a judge in the first place and therefore not have to face the possibility of one of the harshest sentences available, life without the possibility of parole.

Because of their age and continual ongoing development of their brains, youth, as a whole, are arguably more capable of maturing, changing, and growing through rehabilitative efforts than are adults.  Rather than automatically giving up on individuals who commit crimes prior to their eighteenth birthdays, when given the opportunity to rehabilitate by being guided through proper avenues, there is a likely chance that many youth offenders will be able to successfully reenter society.  In light of these notions, supporters of this view would likely advocate for the retroactive application of the Miller holding.  On the other hand, one might argue that the harm to society may be greater in general given the potential juveniles possess for high rates of recidivism.  Opponents and relatives of victims killed by juvenile offenders don’t believe that the youth deserve a second chance, in light of the fact that their victims aren’t afforded the same opportunity.  They would be hard pressed to argue that releasing any of the juveniles currently incarcerated and serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole would serve the overarching goal of protecting the public.

As you get older, your conscience and reasoning capabilities develop and mature, a concept that lends support to the notion that juvenile offenders can particularly benefit from rehabilitation efforts.  The state has a legitimate and compelling interest in protecting society and the juvenile offender alike.  Life sentences without the possibility of parole send a message to society that authorities are “tough on crime” and arguably, are utilized to act as a deterrent to prevent future crimes.  But considering that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for regulating impulse control and emotional response, doesn’t stop developing until one’s mid twenties, can juveniles really be held accountable for weighing short term risks and long term consequences in the same way adults are?  Juvenile offenders, like all offenders, must be held accountable for their behavior and must face consequences for their actions, but is condemning them to die in prison through life sentences without the possibility of parole the best way to handle it?