TRIBUNE: Protesters ask D.A. to 'Have a heart'

Advocates for criminal justice reform are calling for leniency for minors who spend more than half their adult life behind bars before being considered for parole.

A group of protestors rallied outside the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office this past week, arguing against sentencing minors to life without parole.

“Believe me, no one makes parole the first time around,” said Hakim Ali, who took the lead in the group’s demonstration outside the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office this week.

“We’re here to say that this is unacceptable,” said Ali, speaking on behalf of The Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, which organized Tuesday’s lunch-time rally as uniformed and plainclothes law-enforcement officers looked on. The grass-roots group wants a parole status review after 25 years of imprisonment and limits on sentencing that stops the “commonwealth from incarcerating people for indefinite periods of time.”

Before the rally started, the lead organizer explained that minors sentenced to life would have served 35 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole and would likely stay incarcerated for 10 additional years before a state parole board decides on early release.

The group held open the glass front door at 3 South Penn Square, in the hope of handing a miniature-sized sculpture of a heart and opening a dialogue with District Attorney Seth Williams. They brought a sign with a personalized message: “Have a heart, Seth.” Roughly 40 people attended, drawing attention to the issue of sentencing of juveniles, saying life without parole is tantamount to a death sentence.

“There is no such thing as life with parole in Pennsylvania,” according to a fact-sheet, prepared by Decarcerate PA, and circulated at the rally. The group, which advocates for reform in the criminal justice system, stated Pennsylvania has the second highest number of people serving life without parole sentences. And it “is one of only six states that denies parole to lifers,” according to the group.

“The district attorney has a lot of heart,” countered Cameron Kline, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, adding that Williams takes the criminal defendant’s rights, victims’ families and the weight of U.S. Supreme Court rulings into account when making recommendations for re-sentencing.

Kline released a statement on behalf of Williams regarding protocols for juvenile sentencing in the wake of recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in two related cases.

“As the independently elected district attorney of the city of Philadelphia, my job is to fairly apply the law,” Williams wrote. “As a policy matter, I recognize that the court’s ruling emphasized the characteristics of youth and the need for individualized sentences for defendants, based on their age, with minimum and maximum sentences.”

Some participants at the rally held signs with messages that read: “35 to life is still life,” and “No new life sentences.”

A voice-recording amplified by loud-speaker crackled occasionally as a “juvenile lifer” offered a blanket-apology for juveniles convicted of violent crimes, admitting it was “woefully insufficient” in making up for the permanent loss and sorrow caused by their actions. The male talked about personal reflection and amends and resolving to turn into a positive direction.

Some participants who had a relative killed by violent crime or convicted murderer spoke up for rehabilitation rather than the punitive side of the U.S. criminal justice system. They also called for “healing and compassion” for both sides impacted by violent crime: families of innocent victims and those who carried out violent acts and underwent genuine change and feeling remorse, saying it was needed in rebuilding communities.

“Do adults have the power to lock them up, look away and refuse to consider how they’ve changed over three decades,” said Cris Henderson, legal director for Amistad Law Project, a non-profit advocacy group that faulted the Philadelphia district attorney for leaving responsibility for paroling inmates after lengthy sentences to a state administrative board.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered that the age of the defendant at the time of the crime be considered in re-sentencing.

The coalition seized on Williams’ public stance in advocating for second chances for people who found themselves on the wrong side of the law.