Joe Ligon, America’s “oldest and longest-serving” juvenile lifer, was released from a Pennsylvania prison on February 11th after having spent 68 years behind bars. Ligon, a now 83-year-old Black man, was handed a mandatory life without parole sentence in 1953 after having plead guilty to charges related to a robbery and stabbing spree that left two men dead and six others injured. Ligon admitted to participating in the crimes with four other teenage boys, but he denied killing anyone. He was 15 years-old at the time of his incarceration.
The road to his release has been described as a “long one” and one “riddled with obstacles.” In 1970, the Pennsylvania governor granted Ligon the option of clemency, but he rejected the offer because it would require him to be on parole. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama, that the “mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders” was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Some states, like Pennsylvania, did not apply the ruling retroactively. In 2016, the Court further addressed the issue in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2012) and ordered states to retroactively apply the Miller decision. Ligon was among some of the prisoners who were resentenced under the ruling. The resentencing made him eligible for parole, but he turned down that offer as well, stating that he likes to be free and that being on parole would not allow him to do that. In 2020, his attorney Bradley Bridge, argued that Ligon’s sentence was unconstitutional and a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered that Ligon either be resentenced again or released within 90 days. The 90-days were up on Thursday, February 11th, the day he was released.
The Supreme Court’s rulings in Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) were not the first to address the rights of juvenile offenders. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court banned the use of capital punishment for juvenile offenders. Five years later, in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court limited the use of life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. These rulings have undoubtedly helped shaped juvenile justice policy, but the work of reforming the juvenile justice system is far from over. As of 2021, 24 states and D.C. have banned juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences. Twenty-six states still allow those sentences, but only four (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida) account for 80% of JLWOP sentences. A recent report by the Sentencing Project describes the childhood experiences of JLWOP offenders and discusses the racial disparities found within the juvenile justice system. According to the report, most juvenile offenders were found to have had difficult upbringings, frequent exposure to violence, and were often victims of abuse. And, arrest and sentencing data show that African American juveniles are more likely to receive a JLWOP sentence than white juveniles. In fact, 70% of all youth ever sentenced to life without parole are people of color. Despite the progress that has been made to reform the juvenile justice system, there are still many issues that need to be addressed and challenges that need to be overcome.
Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- Writing: Explain the impact that juvenile life without parole sentences have on juvenile offenders and the criminal justice system.
- Debate: According to the Sentencing Project, juvenile offenders have a substantial capacity for rehabilitation, but many states deny this opportunity. Do you believe that juvenile offenders should have access to or be able to participate in rehabilitative prison programs?
- Poll: The Supreme Court should categorically ban juvenile life without parole in all circumstances. (Agree or Disagree).
- Short Answer: Discuss the significance of the Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) Supreme Court cases.
Cover Image: © iStockphoto.com/YingYang