Op-Ed: Redemption for Juvenile Lifers

Cherry Hill resident and Haverford College senior Amanda Friedman talks about her experience as an intern at the Inside-Out Center in Pennsylvania.

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was submitted by Amanda Friedman, a senior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and a 2014 graduate of Cherry Hill High School East.

As an intern at the Inside-Out Center this summer, I spent a significant amount of my time researching the state of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. One of the most important conversations happening right now is about the resentencing of juvenile lifers. In Pennsylvania, there are more than 5,000 people serving life sentences, and about 500 of them were sentenced when they were under the age of eighteen. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Pennsylvania long held that the ban did not apply retroactively, but in 2016 it was ruled that Pennsylvania must follow this rule and revisit the sentences of its many juvenile lifers. This decision has spurred a new round of sentences for people who have been incarcerated for decades and assumed the rest of their days would be spent behind bars. Over the past year, 70 people who were sentenced as juveniles have been released; they’re now returning to new lives in an unfamiliar world.

At the Inside-Out Center, our programming reinforces the power of transformative education and the human capability to learn from one’s past. However, as I read articles for my research about juvenile lifers, I lingered in the comments section and was reminded that many people do not share these views.

What I found there was, in a word, vengefulness. Of course, not everyone reacted this way. A sizable section of the comments were celebratory, announcing that justice has finally been served and that people were eager to welcome these men and women back into the world. But many of the comments repeated that often-heard, influential cry: do the crime, do the time. It appears that people continue to subscribe to this approach even if the crime was many, many years ago, and even if the time is one’s entire life. The comments reveal passionate and strongly held sentiments. “Murderers deserve no sympathy,” they say. “No forgiveness, no forgetting when it comes to heinous crimes. A life for a life.” I wonder where these feelings originate from. I also wonder if their feelings would change if they met some of these men and women, people who are often deeply remorseful and have grappled with the consequences of what they have done and the pain that they have inflicted on other people.

It is true that crime devastates families and communities, and these incidents are not to be taken lightly. But what these comments evidence is a belief that people who commit crimes are incorrigible. These comments show their authors’ belief in a fundamental inability to change. In the coming years, more and more people will be coming home and starting the process of building a new life. Though Philadelphia has a host of re-entry programs, this population faces unique barriers. Housing, employment and other material conditions can hopefully be addressed through programs designed especially for them.

What is undeniably harder to target and address though, are people’s perceptions of these returning citizens. That is part of the reason why John Pace and Mike Lyons started The Redemption Project at St. Joseph’s University. This project is a collection of stories where incarcerated men and women have the chance to tell their story and have ownership over their own narratives. The hope is that having full details about the circumstances surrounding someone’s incarceration — knowing how they have changed and what their time in prison has taught them — will give the juvenile lifers names and stories instead of a blanket classification. Though people can be set in their convictions, The Redemption Project asserts that stories can be powerful. It is my hope that the power of these stories can bring about a society where we listen to people’s complex lives before casting judgment upon them, and we can let ourselves be changed by this act of listening.