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Legislators hear both sides of juvenile-lifer question

| Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- As politicians and human rights advocates push to abolish life sentences without parole for juveniles, victims' families vow to push back.

State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson proposed legislation that would end life sentences without parole for juveniles and give those convicted when they were children a chance for a new sentence because, he said, "I believe in redemption."

"In some places, you'll get elected by just saying, 'Lock 'em up!'" Johnson, D-Philadelphia, said Wednesday at a state House Judiciary Committee hearing on House Bill 1999. "My constituents support this (legislation)."

Johnson could not say when or if the bill will go to the House floor for debate.

Opponents -- including Louis Schouwe, whose stepson, Christopher McNelly, was fatally shot in 1996 in Montgomery County -- believe some people, regardless of age, are a danger to society.

"They put a big hole in his chest," Schouwe said, his hands forming a softball-sized circle on his left breast. "And now they want to give (his killer) parole• If this guy gets out, he'll kill again. That's the reason I'm here. That's why we come to these hearings."

The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole, and Pennsylvania has about 450 juvenile lifers, more than any state, according to studies on juvenile sentencing.

For more than two hours inside City Council Chambers, committee members listened to testimony on the bill, which would allow current juvenile lifers the chance to appeal their sentences and grant convicts parole hearings after serving 15 years of a life sentence, and every three years thereafter.

Supporters said its aim is not to provide free passage out of prison, but to allow for a review of cases years after the offenses. They said life sentences without parole for juveniles are inhumane.

"Can we, in good conscience, continue to legislate from emotion?" said Julia Hall of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. "Are Pennsylvania's children meaner and more hopelessly criminal than the children of New York or New Jersey (which have) not a single child serving life without parole?"

One-third of the state's juvenile lifers "did not kill anyone but were lookouts, tagalongs and otherwise involved in homicide cases as accessories," Hall said.

One such case involved Robert Holbrook, then 16, who was a lookout for a robbery in Philadelphia that ended in homicide in 1990. Holbrook was convicted of murder and received an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole even though he did not know a killing occurred until hours later.

"The answer is not to throw away the lives of our children forever," said Holbrook's sister, Anita Colon of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "The fact that a child commits a crime does not negate the fact that they are still a child."

Bobbi Jamriska, 38, of Shaler disagreed.

In 1993, Maurice Bailey of Crafton Heights, then 16, fatally beat and stabbed Jamriska's sister, Kristina Grill, 15.

"There are bad seeds, individuals who are not fit to be part of a lawful functioning society," said Jamriska, who spoke on behalf of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. "There has to be within the legal system a means to keep these individuals from doing more harm to the innocent."

Life sentences without parole do not provide closure, but they do ensure that convicted killers cannot strike again, said Carol Schouwe and others opposing the bill.

"Supporting this bill is giving permission for juveniles to commit murder without the dire consequence of spending their lives behind bars," Schouwe said.

Of the state's 450 juvenile lifers, 315 are black, said Ashley Nellis, a research analyst with the Washington-based The Sentencing Project, which researches and advocates for sentencing reforms.

The cost to taxpayers to lock up a 15-year-old for life is $2.2 million, assuming the inmate lives to be 70 years old, Hall said.

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