Governor, Have Mercy: Give Juvenile Justice a Chance in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania leads the world in sentencing kids to life without parole; a new law wants to ensure it stays that way.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett SB 850 juveniles doing lwop life without parole

Unless Governor Tom Corbett vetoes SB 850, a maximum security prison is the only venue of life hundreds of juvenile offenders will ever know in Pennsylvania. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Eight years ago, sitting at her mother’s death bed, Anita Colon made a promise to herself and to her dying mother: “I’m going to get my brother out of prison.”

Colon’s brother, Robert Holbrook, was serving a life sentence in prison for a crime he committed on his 16th birthday. The incident took place more than two decades ago on the streets of Philadelphia. It began in the afternoon, when an older neighborhood drug dealer pulled Holbrook aside and asked if he would serve as a lookout for a robbery. The man offered him $500.

“My brother had never been in trouble,” says Colon. “But he thought it would be nice to have 500 bucks for his birthday.”

MORE: My Story: Why Pennsylvania Lawmakers Should Not Throw Away the Key on Locked-Up Kids

So he agreed. It would be the biggest mistake of Robert Holbrook’s life—one that could cost him a lifetime of freedom.

The robbery, it turned out, was of a rival drug dealer. It turned violent quickly—and in the ensuing chaos, the rival’s wife was shot and killed. Holbrook was brought up on murder charges for acting as an accomplice.

Though he didn’t pull the trigger, and though he wasn’t even physically involved in the robbery, Holbrook was sentence to life without parole (LWOP).


Anita Colon and her brother, Robert Holbrook. (Photo Courtesy Anita Colon)

Pennsylvania has nearly 400 juveniles serving LWOP sentences—the most in the country and indeed, the world. The United States is the only country on the planet to lock up juvenile offenders and throw away the key.

“A child should not be thrown away,” says Sanford. “It’s an issue of mercy at some point. As a Christian, I’m comfortable siding on the side of mercy.”

Colon didn’t realize that there were others in her brother’s position when she made the promise to her dying mother. In the time since then, Anita has transformed into the consummate advocate, doing her best to campaign for juvenile sentencing reforms.

Over the years, Colon has earned an unlikely set of allies in her battle to end LWOP sentences for youth in Pennsylvania. One of them is Cindy Sanford.

Cindy Sanford is a self-avowed staunch conservative. Her grandfather and husband were both in law enforcement.

“A few years ago, I would have thought all of these kids were sociopaths that needed to be locked up,” she tells TakePart.

That all changed because of Sanford’s eye for aesthetics. Sanford was running an art gallery, when a friend brought in the most startling wildlife portrait she had ever seen.

“His art communicates something in his soul. I’ve seen some prison art, and it ain’t like that. There’s a light in this young man.”

Still she was skeptical. Until she visited the prison to meet him in person.

“I’m picturing a heavily tattooed, swaggering tough guy,” she says. “I never expected to see a gentle, polite, considerate young man. The first thing he said, after he shook my husband and my hands and thanked us for coming: ‘I’ve been so nervous to meet you, I didn’t sleep last night.’ You could see his honesty. If I didn’t see something in him that was so impressive, I would have never continued [our relationship with him].”

Sanford won’t give too many details about the boy who changed her life, for fear too much press could hamper his chance of one day being paroled. She and her husband have vowed to take him in like a “son” should that day ever come.

“It took this experience for me to realize a child should not be thrown away,” says Sanford. “It’s an issue of mercy at some point. As a Christian, I’m comfortable siding on the side of mercy.”

Mercy, however, faces an uphill battle in the state of Pennsylvania. This week, the Pennsylvania legislature passed Senate Bill 850—which, though it relaxes automatic LWOP sentence for juveniles somewhat, is still so extreme as to be a virtual guarantee of life sentences for youth offenders.

The new bill says instead of automatic LWOP sentences, youth over 15 can be sentenced to 35-to-life, while youth under 15 can serve 25-to-life. The law does not remove LWOP sentences, it simply gives judges the discretion to enforce an alternative sentence.

Both Colon and Sanford are appalled by the bill, which was only initiated in an attempt to come into compliance with a recent Supreme Court decision that argued mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.

“These kids will be 55-56 before they have any real chance of getting out on parole,” says Colon. “How likely are they to find jobs? What type of family support will they have? Their parents will likely be gone. They may or may not have siblings.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is expected to sign SB 850 any day now.

Both Colon and Sanford, however, will keep fighting until their Pennsylvania juveniles can have a second chance.

Can justice truly be served if rehabilitation is ignored? Reason it out in COMMENTS.

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