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.

No Second Chances Or No Chance At All

No Second Chances or No Chances At All

On Monday, March 22, Indiana legislatures conducted the second reading of a bill that would restore prosecutorial discretion to try 16 and 17-year-old children in adult court for their second gun crime.[1]  Representative Wendy McNamara authored the bill in response to an Indiana Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to hear cases in which teenagers are charged with dangerous possession of a firearm.[2]  According to representative McNamara, the bill merely reinforces the status quo by “putting back into law what has currently been in practice for as long as I can know. . . .”  At first blush, it might seem hard to argue with Committee Chairman Senator Mike Young’s assertion that “kids with guns do dangerous things, and we gave them one break, and on the second one we’re going to send them to adult court.”  Such an assertion seems to follow a common belief held by many that kids who do adult crimes should do adult time.

The problem is this is not an adult crime.  In fact, Indiana’s dangerous possession statute “is clear and applies only to children; an adult cannot commit dangerous possession of a firearm.”[3] If IN HB1256 passes, it would be just another example of criminalizing youth, prioritizing the perception of public safety over education and development.  What’s more, another piece of legislation, IN HB 1369, which passed the House by 65-31 vote, would eliminate the license requirement to carry a handgun in Indiana despite the $5.3 million per year the license raises and fears the bill would make police officers and the general public less safe.[4]

So, what’s really going on here?  Does a dangerous possession statute like Indiana’s betray a presumption of dangerousness in youth?  Is the solution to remove kids from their dangerous homes and place them in prisons?  Will waiving a teen gun offender to adult court amount to a denial of services and individualized treatment by placing them on probation or community correction?  And why in the world would we subject a child to the adult criminal justice system for conduct that is not criminal behavior? As I ponder these questions, I can’t help but think this is just another example of the system working as it was designed to, an example of what Alec Karakatsanis would characterize as people in power making very important choices about what is and is not a crime for very particular racial and political purposes.[5]

In my view, it is absurd to deprive a person of their childhood because they made the same mistake twice – which in and of itself seems to indicate a lack of mature reasoning.  It is absurd to “discipline” teenagers in a way that does not teach them about the rights and responsibilities they will have as adults.  But this seems to be the criminal “justice” system working as it was designed.  When 83% of the young offenders being sent directly to adult court on firearms charges are children of color, it seems clear that proponents of the bill are indeed just trying to maintain the status quo of controlling poor people and people of color.  Because, while a “lawful citizen in the state of Indiana” should have the right to protect themselves without state interference, children – particularly children of color – are not afforded the same right.  Imagine, for instance, white, female, country singer, Miranda Lambert said that after receiving threats, she carries a weapon for self-protection.[6]  That is, no doubt, her right and many might celebrate her for doing so.  However, children who grow up in marginalized communities, which inevitably become designated as “high crime areas” to justify infringements on other constitutional rights such as the 4th Amendment, may start carrying a gun for protection.  Driven by the same trauma as a “lawful citizen,” these children are thrown in jail, labeled criminals, and deprived of hope for the future.

Although I have focused on Indiana, this is a nationwide problem.  For example, truancy laws across the country subject children to the “justice” system for conduct that would not be criminal if committed by an adult.  And while these laws may be enforced under the guise of public health and safety, in reality, it is just another way for the legal system to marginalize and subjugate children, preparing them to be disenfranchised and despondent adults.

[1] https://fox59.com/news/politics/indiana-senate-to-debate-bill-to-send-more-juveniles-to-adult-court/

[2] K.C.G. v. State, 156 N.E.3d 1281, 1282 (Ind. 2020)

[3] Id. at 1283.

[4] https://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2021/02/22/indiana-general-assembly-house-votes-eliminate-handgun-license/6765355002/

[5] https://www.texasobserver.org/alec-karakatsanis-usual-cruelty-criminal-justice-reform/

[6] https://tasteofcountry.com/miranda-lambert-admits-she-carries-a-weapon-for-protection/

 

It’s the little things.

It’s the little things. . .

Many largescale changes must be made to the juvenile justice system.  From limiting law enforcement’s jurisdiction over children to diverting funds to community resources to shutting down detention facilities, there is much that can be done at a high level.  These measures recognize the growing body of science emphasizing the difference between criminal and adolescent behavior while recommending family-oriented and least restrictive models of discipline.  If that is the purpose, what can stakeholders who have direct and immediate contact with children in conflict with the law do now while we wait for legislation to catch up with science?  Could something as simple as access to a radio help?

It seems hard to overstate the importance of music to an adolescent.  Listening to music at a given moment changes the situation, which is an extremely powerful tool, particularly for a young person with limited control over their lives.  Listening to “music (in its different genres, behaviors, and contexts…) [allows adolescents] to capitalize, exercise, and regain a sense of agency.”[1]  When so much of a child’s life is dictated by schedules imposed on them by parents, school administrators, state officials, and others who are generally not accountable to the child, there is precious little with which an adolescent can experiment in their “trajectory toward their empowerment as agents who can create and control several aspects of their own world.”[2] And so, in listening to music, an adolescent can explore their own identity, connect with peers, and regulate mood by building a world “in which they can shout and be silly, [be] fragile and in search of themselves, and make their own, personal, choices.”[3]

When I started teaching Street Law to students in a residential probation facility, one of the first exercises we engaged in was developing class rules and incentives together.  Though I intended the exercise to encourage a spirited back and forth of negotiation, I was surprised by the enthusiasm.  They seemed genuinely excited to have the opportunity to exercise some agency over their environment and the thing they advocated for most was playing music at the beginning of class.  When I asked them to justify getting to listen to music before class as opposed to afterward as a reward, they explained listening to music can help process emotions, reduce anxiety, and improve performance in school.  They even self-imposed limits on the music videos to avoid gratuitous sexual or violent imagery.  Commending them on a job well done, I collected requested songs for approval by probation staff.  It was at that point that a student asked me why it needed to get approved, why they couldn’t just listen to the music they wanted to listen to.  It was striking that of all the highly restricted conditions they were subject to, limitations on music might have been among the most immediately hurtful.  Eventually, the music was approved (so long as it was a radio edit) and the students bought into the class.  But the fear of being judged on their musical tastes and having it censored was an emotionally fraught experience.

That interaction was among the most impactful of my teaching experience so far and it’s been the hardest to relate.  People seem, generally, to accept the idea that the content children consume ought to be regulated.  But, when it comes to music and the teenager, I’m not so certain.  It feels too much like reading a diary or otherwise depriving them of judgment-free self-exploration.  This seems especially cruel and counterproductive when, for better or worse, so many other restrictions on expression and experimentation apply.

Science suggests when a listener has so little control over their external environment, “the music itself becomes important to them; they feel the need for the ‘auditory bubble.’. . . to cope . . . [and] to improve their internal mood to deal with their lack of control over the external situation.”[4] One researcher calls it the “musically extended mind” that enhances internal abilities and affords possibilities for action at the affective, physical, and social levels.[5] Nevertheless, some would argue that kids these days aren’t listening to music with good moral values and with bad language.  Music just isn’t the same as when we were kids.  Of course not!  Music is ephemeral.  But that might be why it is so crucial, particularly for children who are learning how to navigate their time and place.  Furthermore, I’d like to share a point raised by my students.  They knew some words might be “inappropriate” and shouldn’t be said in polite company, but “that’s not the point,” they said.  The songs are about “flexing” or “telling it like it is.” In other words, it’s about “misery sharing”[6] or building confidence by listening to lyrics about overcoming significant obstacles.  To say that their music is inappropriate might sound to them like “your feelings are inappropriate” or otherwise discouraging having confidence, pride, or optimism.

But what about those kids that committed troubling acts of violence, those kids that our system would have removed from their communities to be rehabilitated?  Should they be allowed to listen to music that some may perceive as problematic?  Perhaps a level of censorship is appropriate in certain circumstances.  But music, like anything else, is uniquely understood through the listener’s context and history that influences their ability to identify and understand the musical, social, and political elements contained within.[7]  And so, I am less inclined to censor music based on sensibilities.  Perhaps, instead, it is more appropriate to encourage dialogue through sharing music while permitting solitary listening.  I would speculate that these small gestures of empathy and understanding might make the discipline that much more effective and rehabilitation more likely.[8]

 

 

[1] Saarikallio SH, Randall WM and Baltazar M (2020) Music Listening for Supporting Adolescents’ Sense of Agency in Daily Life. Front. Psychol. 10:2911. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02911

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Krueger, J. (2018). “Music as affective scaffolding,” in Music and Consciousness II: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, eds D. Clarke, R. Herbert, and E. Clarke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[6] Skånland, M. S. (2013). Everyday music listening and affect regulation: the role of MP3 players. Int. J. Qual. Stud. Health Well-Being 8:20595. doi: 10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20595

[7] Christopher M. Ortivez, Understanding Rap Music from the Listener’s Perspective (1997) (M.A. Theses, University of Colorado Denver) (Auraria Library).

[8] P Nieman, S Shea, Canadian Paediatric Society, Community Paediatrics Committee, Effective discipline for children, Paediatrics & Child Health, Volume 9, Issue 1, January 2004, Pages 37–41, https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/9.1.37 (“To be effective, discipline needs to be: 1) given by an adult with an affective bond to the child; 2) consistent, close to the behaviour needing change; 3) perceived as “fair” by the child; 4) developmentally and temperamentally appropriate; and 5) self-enhancing, i.e., ultimately leading to self-discipline.”)