Monday, September 22, 2008

Anita D. Colón Before the Pennsylvania State Senate Judiciary Committee

As requested by State Senator Steward Greenleaf
Monday, September 22, 2008, 9:30 AM
In Hearing Room #1, North Office Building, Harrisburg, PA
Juveniles Sentenced to Life without Parole in Pennsylvania

Good morning Senator Greenleaf and Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. My name is Anita Colón. I am the sister of Robert Holbrook, a man currently serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania for a crime he was convicted of participating in at the age of 16. First, I would like to thank you, Senator Greenleaf, for holding this hearing on the issue of sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania and allowing me to testify before you today. I praise both your concern about this issue as well as your willingness to step forward to address it.

My brother Robert was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a crime that occurred on his sixteenth birthday. That day, lured by the promise of $500 made by a neighborhood drug dealer, Robert agreed to serve as a lookout for four adult males for what he thought was going to be a simple drug deal. My brother soon found himself in the midst of a robbery of a drug dealer’s young wife inside her home. Although he desperately wanted to run once he realized what was happening, he was terrified of the drug dealer that had ordered him to stay, and oblivious to the consequences that would await him if he remained.

As a result of that terrible night, an innocent young woman lost her life and my brother’s freedom was taken away forever. As with the majority of juvenile offenders charged in a murder case, attempts to have the case transferred back to juvenile court were denied. Having no prior experience with the court system, my brother accepted his attorney’s advice and pled guilty to murder generally. This attorney had told us that if he did not do this, the D.A. would seek the death penalty for all involved.

Despite Robert’s age and the fact that he did not participate in the actual murder of this woman, the judge convicted of him of first degree murder for aiding and abetting in the crime and due to the mandatory sentencing laws in Pennsylvania, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. At the sentencing, the judge stated that my brother had most certainly been the least culpable of the offenders, but that the law did not permit him to use discretion in his sentencing. That was 18 years ago. My brother is now 34 years old. While his friends continued high school, got their drivers licenses, went on to college, got married and now have children, he sits confined to a cell. Most of his early years were spent in isolation, separated from the adult offenders.

My brother’s conviction and incarceration was devastating to my family, especially my mother. My mother wrote to her son in prison each and every day right up until the end of her life four years ago. At that time she was diagnosed with Cancer and within months she passed away. Robert was not even able to attend her funeral because the Department of Corrections had stopped allowing the transportation of lifers to attend funerals, even when their parents die.

In spite of the lack of hope afforded him, my brother has refused to give up on his life. While in prison, he obtained his GED, completed a paralegal course, and became an avid reader and writer. He has had several articles published and works closely with many human rights organizations fighting against injustice and unfair sentencing such as his. Whereas I believe that my brother did deserve to be punished for what he did, I know that he does not deserve to spend the rest of his life, what could turn out to be 60, 70, even 80 years in prison, for one horrible choice he made at barely 16.

Although my initial concern over juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole came as a result of my brother’s conviction, after truly researching this human rights issue, I became an advocate for juvenile justice, and I stand before you today on behalf of all 450 juveniles currently sentenced to die in prison in Pennsylvania.

I feel it is also important to note that I am not only a family member of a juvenile offender but that my family has also experienced senseless tragedy and victimization due to violent crime yet still I advocate for second chances for offenders. As a society we must begin to seek justice as opposed to vengeance and a thirst for revenge and keep in mind that it is not the job of the Criminal Justice System to exact revenge, it is to seek justice.

Much of the background on this serious human rights issue we are addressing today may have been said already, but I feel it is important to highlight several points. The United States is currently the only country in the world known to have children sentenced to and serving life without the possibility of parole. This alone screams that there is something wrong with this policy. The District Attorney’s Office claims that only the worst child offenders are sentenced to life without parole, and only in exceptional circumstances, but that is simply not true.

Here in Pennsylvania, over 50 percent of the prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles were first time offenders, never having been convicted of a previous crime. And 26 percent were convicted of JLWOP because they participated in a crime that led to a murder but did not themselves kill anyone. In most of the cases, these sentences were a result of mandatory sentencing currently in place for adults convicted of murder.

The U.S. Supreme Court made the distinction between the culpability of juvenile offenders and adult offenders when it abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2005. Citing both clinical and academic research, they acknowledged that adolescents are immature, incapable of clear adult decision making, and prone to peer pressure. Using this same logic, it is time that Pennsylvania sets the stage for our country, and abolishes life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

Our laws do not allow juveniles to assume the same responsibilities as adults (such as driving, voting, drinking, or joining the military) because we know that they are not mature or mentally developed enough to make these decisions about or control these actions. Yet, we hold these same children as accountable as adults when it comes to crime.

Finally, JLWOP, like most forms of unusually harsh punishment, does not serve as a deterrent. FBI Statistics show that from 1994-2004 the number of juveniles arrested for murder rose by over 24%. Research studies have shown that juvenile offenders are more susceptible to rehabilitation and treatment than adult offenders. These children are not beyond redemption, but currently they are without hope. We imprison children for the rest of their lives, without any hope of rehabilitation or re-entry into society and call it justice. Well, I call it inhumane.

While I acknowledge that here in Pennsylvania, especially Philadelphia, those fighting crime face daunting challenges, the answer is not to throw away the lives of our children forever. The fact that a child commits a crime does not negate the fact that they are still a child.

Please understand that I am in no way suggesting that you open the prison gates and free everyone that was incarcerated as a juvenile. Instead, I only ask that you afford them the prospect, not guarantee, of parole after a reasonable period of incarceration. I find it ironic that heinous mass murderers such as Charles Manson are regularly provided the opportunity for parole, yet thousands of children whose crimes could never begin to compare to theirs are not.

These juvenile offenders should be given a second chance, a chance to prove that an extremely poor choice made during adolescence does not have to define who they are or who can become as an adult within society. Senator Greenleaf, Committee members, I implore you to do just that.

Again, thank you for allowing me to testify here today.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Testimony of Elizabeth Calvin, Children’s Rights Advocate, in Support of H.R. 4300 the “Juvenile Justice Accountability

House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security

September 17, 2008

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for holding this hearing and for inviting me to testify on the important topic of the sentencing of youth who were below the age of 18 at the time of their offenses to life without the possibility of parole. I am here to testify in support of legislation that would end this practice in the United States and provide meaningful access to parole hearings or other review for youth offenders serving this sentence.

The decision to sentence a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole is a decision to sentence that young person to die in prison. There is no time off for good behavior, no opportunity to prove that you have become a different person, responded with remorse and chosen paths of rehabilitation. Next to the death penalty, there is no harsher condemnation, no clearer judgment by our criminal courts that this is a life to be thrown away. The federal government and 39 states sentence under-18 offenders to life without the possibility of parole.

In the US we believe that people under the age of 21 lack the judgment needed to drink alcohol responsibly; that those below 18 are too immature to understand the implications of signing a contract; and that someone younger than 16 cannot assess the risks and consequences inherent in driving a car. Yet, in this country we have also decided that children as young as 13 are mature enough to be sentenced to die in prison.

The United States stands alone in its imposition of this sentence on children. In the US there are currently more than 2,484 people who were convicted of crimes committed as children and sentenced to life without parole. There is not a single individual serving this sentence in the rest of the world.

The Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2007 would allow states and the federal government to ensure that young offenders receive serious punishments to hold them accountable for actions that have caused enormous suffering to victims and their families. H.R. 4300 would, however, also provide youth—who are different from adults in their capacity to change—with an incentive to work towards rehabilitation in prison. Access to a parole hearing or another form of meaningful review is not a “get out of jail free” card. It is a chance to earn one’s release from prison through rehabilitation. Parole hearings would assess a youth offender’s rehabilitation, and they would also provide a necessary opportunity for victims and their families to be heard.

Through in-depth statistical and legal research, in-person interviews with youth, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, lawmakers and victims, Human Rights Watch has investigated the use of life without parole for youth throughout the United States since 2004. We have found that not only is the US now the sole country imposing this sentence on children, but the sentence is also imposed unfairly and disproportionately upon racial and ethnic minorities. Based on our research, we support the passage of H.R. 4300 for three main reasons. The use of this sentence for juveniles is frequently disproportionate, racially discriminatory, and a violation of international law.

One example of the disproportionate use of the sentence is the case of Sara K. Sara was raised by her mother who was addicted to drugs and abusive. She was 16 years old at the time of her crime. At age 11 Sara met “G.G.,” a 31-year-old man. Soon after, he sexually assaulted Sara and began grooming her to become a prostitute. At age 13, Sara began working as a prostitute for G.G. He continued sexually assaulting Sara and using her as a prostitute for almost three years. Shortly after turning 16, Sara shot and killed G.G. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

It is not just the facts of individual cases that show the disproportionate use of this sentence. There are more systemic problems. The sentence of life without parole was created for the worst criminal offenders. But we have found that life without parole is not reserved for juveniles who commit the worst crimes or who show signs of being irredeemable criminals. For example, this sentence is routinely used with young people who have never before been in trouble with the law. Human Rights Watch found that nationally an estimated 59 percent of youth sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders. They had no prior juvenile or criminal record whatsoever—not even a shoplifting conviction. [1]

Additionally, our research found that these young people often acted under the influence or at times specific direction of adults when they committed their crimes. For example, in California, in an estimated 70 percent of cases in which a teen was acting with codefendants, at least one codefendant was an adult. [2] Even more disturbing, however, is that in an estimated 56 percent of cases with adult codefendants, the adult received a lower sentence than the youth who is now serving life without parole. [3]

Also troubling is the fact that often youth sentenced to life without parole were not the primary actors in the crime: they did not pull the trigger; they did not physically commit the crime. Nearly half of youth sentenced to life without parole surveyed in Michigan were sentenced for aiding and abetting or an unplanned murder in the course of a felony. [4] Thirty-three percent of youth sentenced to life without parole whose cases we investigated in Colorado had convictions based on the felony murder rule. [5] In 45 percent of California cases surveyed, youth sentenced to life without parole had not actually committed a murder and were convicted for their role in aiding and abetting or participating in a felony. [6] These are all cases in which someone else was the primary actor. A significant number of these cases involved an attempted crime gone awry—a tragically botched robbery attempt, for example—rather than premeditated murder.

We also have serious concerns that racial discrimination and disparities plague the sentencing of youth to life without parole throughout the United States. On average across the country, black youth are serving life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth. Many states have racial disparities that are far greater. Among the 26 states with five or more youth offenders serving life without parole for which we have race data, the highest black-to-white ratios are in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California, where black youth are between 18 and 48 times more likely to be serving a sentence of life without parole than white youth. [7]

Poor legal assistance afforded to many teen defendants appears to further compromise just outcomes. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed or surveyed described a level of legal representation that falls well below professional norms. In California, one of the most salient errors reported to Human Rights Watch is attorneys’ failure to adequately represent youth offenders at the sentencing hearing. In 46 percent of cases, respondents reported that their attorney failed to argue for a lower sentence.

We support H.R. 4300 because it is sound public policy. Lawmakers do not face a choice between being “soft on crime” and supporting life without parole for teen offenders. Lawmakers can protect community safety, save on incarceration costs, and save youth from a lifetime in prison.

Proponents of life without parole believe the sentence is necessary in order to ensure retribution—that society metes out the worst punishment for the worst offenses. However, while teens can commit the same acts as adults, by virtue of their immaturity they are not as blameworthy or culpable. Recent developments in neuroscience have found that teens do not have adults’ developed abilities to think, to weigh consequences, to make sound decisions, to control their impulses, and to resist group pressures; their brains are anatomically different, still evolving into the brains of adults. These findings suggest that sentencing laws should be revised to ensure that youth offenders are not sentenced as if they were adults.

Supporters of the life without parole sentence also claim that teens who pause to consider the consequences before committing crimes will be deterred if they face harsh sentences such as life in prison without parole. But young people are less likely than adults to pause before acting, and when they do, research has failed to show that the threat of adult punishment deters them from crime. Deterrence is also unlikely given research showing that adolescents cannot really grasp the true significance of the sentence.

Some proponents claim that incapacitation justifies the use of life without parole sentences. No one can deny that life without parole makes some contribution to public safety to the extent that locking up youth offenders prevents them from committing additional crimes. It is undeniable, however, that many youth offenders can be rehabilitated and become productive members of society. The need to incapacitate a particular offender ends once he or she has been rehabilitated. There is no basis for believing that all or even most of the teens who receive life without parole sentences would otherwise have engaged in a life of crime. Our research indicates that many teens received life without parole for their first offense. There is little in their histories to warrant the assumption that they would not mature and be rehabilitated if they were spared a lifetime in prison.

Finally, we support H.R. 4300 because the US practice of sentencing youth to life without parole violates international law. International law prohibits life without parole sentences for those who commit their crimes before the age of 18, a prohibition that is universally applied outside of the United States. Oversight and enforcement bodies for two treaties to which the United States is a party (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) have found the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole to be a clear violation of US treaty obligations.

There is movement to change these laws occurring across the country. Legislative efforts are pending in California, Florida, Illinois, and Michigan and there are grassroots movements in Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Washington. Most recently, Colorado outlawed life without parole for children in 2006.

H.R. 4300 would eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders in the United States and bring our country into compliance with international law and standards of justice. It would recognize that youth are different from adults and provide incentives for rehabilitation that reflect their unique ability to change. Human Rights Watch urges you to support this bill.

[1] Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, October 2005,, pp. 27-28.

[2] Human Rights Watch, When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home: Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California, January 2008,, p. 35.

[3] Ibid, p. 36.

[4] American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, “Second Chances, Juveniles Serving Life without Parole in Michigan’s Prisons,” 2004, (accessed September 2, 2008), p. 4.

[5] Human Rights Watch, Thrown Away: Children Sentenced to Life without Parole in Colorado, February 2005,, pp.18-19.

[6] Human Rights Watch, When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home: Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California, January 2008,, p. 21.

[7] Human Rights Watch, Executive Summary, The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Youth Offenders in the United States in 2008, May 2008,, pp.5-7.