TRIBUNE: Juvenile sentencing reform becomes rallying cry

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 12:00 am

Members of the West Philadelphia-based Human Rights Coalition joined with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration for what was dubbed a Mother’s Day rally that called for the restoration of communities and juvenile sentencing reforms.

The May 6 rally was scheduled to take place outside City Hall but inclement weather forced the event to be held inside the Arch Street Methodist Church, 55 N. Broad St.

The mothers of incarcerated children appealed for ending life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders in Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania prisons hold over 5,000 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole,” said a statement from organizers, who noted that about 500 of those serving such sentences were convicted as juveniles.

“In Pennsylvania, a life sentence means your natural life – it is a sentence that condemns you to die in prison which is why many choose to call it death by incarceration,” the statement said.

According to the group Decarcerate PA, Pennsylvania has the second highest number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in the United States. It is also one of only six states that denies parole for lifers.

“Today where are here in a special voice, an anti-retribution voice. It is a voice of compassion, it is a voice of redemption, it is a voice of love for our loved ones whom we are trying to bring home,” said Russell Shoatz III. “This coalition is made up of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, religious people – we are a group of people trying to make a serious change in reference to compassion and love, and we want to see our communities here.”

One by one speakers took the microphone and had one thing in common: They supported legislation that would end lifetime sentence without parole, especially for juveniles in Pennsylvania.

Anita Colon cited her brother, who has served 26 years of a life sentence. Her brother was 16 when he participated in what he thought would be a drug deal but ended in the death of an innocent person.

“He did not directly participate in that death nor did he even witness it, but because of the laws in Pennsylvania, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole,” said Colon, whose brother is now 41 years old.

Another mother, Patricia Vickers, talked about her son, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17.

“I want to speak to you as a mother and what I went through and what I feel a lot of other mothers have gone through,” Vickers said. “The first thing I went through when my son was arrested was feeling lost and alone. If felt as if there was no one to discuss this with, that there was no one on my side.”

Vickers said some people felt she should just forget about her son and just go on with her life.

“I couldn’t do that and, as a mother, I still can’t do that,” Vickers said. “Every single day, 365 days a year for 28 years I have been serving this time with my son, and I think about how they are so hateful and vindictive to sentence a child to death or how wrong it was for them to sentence a child to die in prison.”

The rally heard from someone who knew of the hardship. It came via a recorded message from Kempis “Ghani” Songster, who at the age of 15 was sentenced to a life sentence, and is now serving time in Graterford Prison.

“On behalf of all wayward sons and daughters who have gotten lost quite early but eventually, under impossible conditions, found our way; and on behalf of all teenagers who have committed horrible acts, caused irreparable damage, irreplaceable lost, permanent pain and caused us to spend the rest of our time in prison, I just want to thank you all for doing this,” Songster said.

Songster apologized for the harm he and others like him had caused society and appealed for compassion in sentencing.

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miller v. Alabama that sentencing of juveniles without hope of parole to be cruel and unusual punishment. In a later Alabama case, the justices ruled that the decision could be applied retroactively to those already convicted prior to the decision.

Activists contend that Pennsylvania has been slow to move in reviewing sentences in the wake of the high court decisions. CADBI promises to continue pushing until state officials take action.

Other speakers included Kimberly King, Ellen Melchiondo, Movita Johnson-Harrell, Kris Henderson and Sean Damon.

The rally ended with a march to the office of Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams, where participants delivered a Mother’s Day card and asked for him to move on the matter regarding the juvenile sentences.