ACLU calls attention to ‘child lifers’

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In the first of a series of public discussions on the juvenile justice system’s effect on communities, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union held a meeting at the Homewood library on minors receiving life sentences.

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COMMUNITY CONCERN—As Paula Harris listens, Debbie Bailey, right, says the ACLU helped her son after he was placed in the Allegheny County Jail at 15, during the ACLU’s Juvenile Justice Discussion in Homewood.

“This is a complex issue and we want folks dealing with it to look to the ACLU as an ally,” said spokesperson Erin Gill at the Sept. 10 meeting in the Homewood Library. “Unfortunately, our scheduling competes with the (Pittsburgh) Steelers opening game, so we didn’t get as many people as we’d like.”

Most of those who did attend were either current or former ACLU board members, but some law students and community activists also attended. Potters House pastor Rev. Cornell Jones had been scheduled to lead the discussion, but was detained. Martha Connolly, ALCU board member and co-producer of the film “Lost in the Hype” stood in.

“Sentencing a child to die in prison is the issue I’m here to talk about,” she said. “There are currently 2,574 inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. In Pennsylvania, we have the most, 444. And of those, 18 of them are age 13 or 14.”

Given recent research about the physical underdevelopment of the juvenile brain, particularly those parts of the frontal cortex related to higher cognition and damping down the instinctual “lizard brain,” and recent revelations about judicial abuses in sentencing, Connolly said the Equal Justice Initiative has called for life without parole to be abolished for juveniles.

“In February, two Lucerne County judges reached a plea agreement after it was determined they were sentencing juveniles to a for-profit prison facility in exchange for cash,” she said. “Well, just recently, the judge hearing the case threw out the plea deal. Now they face 48 counts for taking $2.6 million in kickbacks.”

In Pennsylvania, unlike many states, a sentence of life in prison means exactly that. Only those sentenced to serve specific terms are eligible for parole. As such, advocates must either lobby for change in state sentencing guidelines to allow for lifers to get parole, or challenge trying minors as adults in any case.

For Debbie Bailey, this issue hit close to home. Her son was jailed at 15. But she knew about Pittsburgh ACLU legal director Vic Walczak and called him.

“He came to the Allegheny County jail in the dead of winter, at night, walked my son through the whole thing, and got him bail,” she said. “So I started helping at the ACLU any way I could and was on the board for a while. But it’s not just Black kids. I’ve seen a lot of White kids charged as adults because they didn’t have money to fight. This isn’t about Black and White, it’s about green.”

The next discussion meeting in the ACLU Juvenile Justice Series, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline,” is scheduled for Oct. 8 at the Amani International Coffee House, 507 Foreland St. on the North Side. One HOOD activist Jasiri X is slated to lead the discussion. For more information contact the ACLU at 412-681-7864.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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