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.

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