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I want that each troubled younger African American boy might meet Joe Ligon.

I hope they encounter the image of the white-haired man taken shortly after his launch from a state jail in Pennsylvania. I ponder if they’d notice that he was as soon as identical to them, and that they might find yourself like him.

Ligon went to jail on the age of 15. After serving 68 years, he walked away a free man this month, ridding himself of the dreadful legacy of America’s oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer.

The U.S. Supreme Courtroom dominated in 2012 that sentencing youths beneath the age of 18 to obligatory life with out parole for crimes equivalent to homicide was unconstitutional. Illinois, nevertheless, is one among a diminishing variety of states that also permits discretionary life with out parole, during which judges determine whether or not it’s warranted.

Even when a baby isn’t immediately sentenced to life with out parole, she or he might nonetheless spend their life behind bars, in keeping with the youth advocacy group Restore Justice. The Illinois Supreme Courtroom has dominated {that a} 41-year jail sentence quantities to a de facto life sentence for kids.

Ligon is an outdated man now, with most of his life behind him. In media interviews, the 83-year-old, with a balding head and his remaining hair in a stable white Afro, appeared content material together with his scenario and optimistic concerning the future.

“That is no unhappy day for me,” he informed The Washington Submit. “Really feel actual good. Like a dream come true. I anticipated this from Day One.”

Many people are glad that he’s lastly free, however we additionally really feel unhappy for him.

We have a look at Ligon and see a wasted life — many years of humanity snatched away by an unjust judicial system. We mourn for the youthful desires and untapped potential thrown away by a troubled teenager who might see no future past the current.

Ligon’s story isn’t any totally different from hundreds of different younger Black boys who dwell in a pit of precarious moments, with no regard for their very own lives or anybody else’s.

One February night time in 1953, Ligon and 4 different teenage boys went on a theft and killing spree in Philadelphia. They had been consuming wine and having enjoyable, tearing by the streets of his neighborhood. They stabbed eight males, two of whom died.

Ligon admitted stabbing one of many males who survived, and his legal professional instructed him to plead responsible to that. Nevertheless, he was discovered responsible of two counts of first-degree homicide and sentenced to life in jail with out parole.

Although his incarceration might sound excessive, Ligon’s story is a well-recognized one. In cities equivalent to Chicago, the place younger Black boys senselessly injure or kill one another daily, many younger Ligons already are within the jail system or within the pipeline.

In 2017, the Supreme Courtroom required states to evaluate greater than 2,300 energetic circumstances the place youngsters had been sentenced to life with out parole, 70% involving individuals of colour. States might both launch them or resentence them.

Ligon turned down a suggestion of parole in 2017, simply as he had within the Nineteen Seventies when the Pennsylvania governor supplied him clemency. He rejected it, he stated, as a result of he didn’t like the concept of being on parole.

In Illinois, prison legal guidelines proceed to be unjustly utilized to African American youths. They’re extra usually tried as adults, or their juvenile sentences are longer and harsher than their white counterparts.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a invoice in 2019 that took a step towards fixing the state’s juvenile sentencing legal guidelines. It permits for parole hearings for some individuals beneath the age of 21 who face excessive sentences, but it surely doesn’t apply to youths sentenced to life with out parole.

Illinois Rep. Rita Mayfield launched laws final week that will ban all life with out parole sentences for individuals beneath the age of 21. If it passes, Illinois will turn into the twenty fifth state plus the District of Columbia to cast off such sentencing solely.

The problem has gained renewed curiosity as Chicago officers take care of a surge in carjackings, a lot of which contain youths, some as younger as 12.

Supporters argue that a lot of the youth-related crime is a symptom of the societal breakdown that has created a panorama of joblessness, insufficient training and poverty. They insist that locking younger individuals up for lengthy durations of time can not clear up these issues.

Black boys don’t get a break. Ligon and lots of others can attest to that.

If African American boys might look into Ligon’s eyes, they may see how spending years behind bars adjustments the best way one views life. His phrases supply knowledge that may solely come from somebody who has suffered extended ache from making unhealthy decisions.

“I’m a grown-up now,” Ligon informed CNN. “I’m not a child anymore. Not solely am I a grown man, I’m an outdated man and getting older daily.”

He’s talking to each younger African American who’s caught up within the streets. I hope they will hear him.

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