John Pace and His Friends Expected to Die in Prison

John Pace and His Friends Expected to Die in Prison

John Pace and His Friends Expected to Die in Prison

Then the men, who’d been sentenced to life as juveniles, were freed.


On a Saturday morning in early June, 15 men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s gathered in a drab conference room on the Philadelphia Community College campus. They greeted each other cheerfully, joking and laughing as they helped themselves to coffee, fruit cups, and pastries.

John Pace, seated at the head of the table in a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Proudly serving in the war on injustice,” made a phone call to a no-show who lived around the corner. “It would be good to have you. We need your wisdom, man!” he said, grinning as he listed everyone in attendance. “We’re here till one! Brush your teeth, wash your face!” Sure enough, the man showed up soon after.

“Did anybody come home this week?” Pace asked the group. Discussion commenced; someone had heard that a man nicknamed “Paz” was coming home in a few days. Everyone in the room seemed to know Paz, and one whipped out his phone to share the good news with his cousin.

Over the past several years, every man in the room had a homecoming of his own, returning to Philadelphia from prison cells where they had spent their entire adult lives and expected to die. They are among the more than 100 people who have returned to Philadelphia since 2016, when the Supreme Court ordered states to take a second look at people who had received mandatory sentences of life without parole as juveniles. Despite facing a host of difficulties, not one of the more than 130 newly released lifers across the state of Pennsylvania has been convicted of a new offense or even a serious parole violation.

Soon after his homecoming in February 2017, Pace and several others organized a support group where this small community of people—once considered so dangerous they were locked up for life as teenagers—could discuss the challenges of returning to a world that has moved on without them. Now officially named Life After Life, the group has expanded to focus on three additional goals: helping juvenile lifers who remain incarcerated with their upcoming transitions into society; engaging with young people in the community; and working with politicians to enact policy change and sentencing reform.

Still, the group’s first mission—supporting one another through life adjustments and challenges—remains at the heart of its efforts. Members of Life After Life were sentenced to life without parole as children, and most had their sentences overturned in middle or old age. Many were incarcerated before their first full-time job, driver’s license, or romantic relationship. Some needed help obtaining a birth certificate, finding clothing, navigating technology, or learning to do laundry. Styles have changed, and even the soda dispensers at Wawa have touch screens. Some are aging, with looming health concerns. Finding employment is a challenge with a murder conviction and no established work history. All will be under parole supervision for the rest of their lives, paying up to $35 a month for the privilege of being held to a set of strict rules.

So they meet, gathering twice a month, with Pace tracking down newly freed juvenile lifers after hearing about their release from a parole officer or through the grapevine. These meetings typically draw about 15 attendees and also serve as de facto social events among longtime friends.

“You’ve been in an environment where your life has been static for so long,” Pace observed. “And now, all of a sudden, you’re going through a transition, and all these things are hitting you.”

The story of how Pace came to be part of this uncommon cohort begins more than 30 years ago. In 1985, he attempted to mug a stranger and, in the process, beat him unconscious. When the man died 10 days later, Pace pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which came with a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was 17.

Pace’s sentence fit with national trends at the time. In the 1980s and 1990s, state legislatures across the country reacted to panic over teenage “superpredators” by making it easier or even mandatory for prosecutors and judges to try children as adults, pushing hundreds of thousands of children into adult courts. By 2016, more than 2,100 people across the country were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), permanently locked away for crimes they had committed as children. Pennsylvania was the JLWOP capital of the world: The state held 521 people serving the sentence—one-quarter of the national total—with 303 in Philadelphia County alone.

Pennsylvania earned this grim distinction thanks to a particularly harsh set of laws and practices that all combined to disastrous effect. A 2016 Pew analysis found that Pennsylvania ranked 11th in the country for “punishment rate” (incarceration rate relative to the rate of crime), and the Keystone State has particularly harsh policies for lifers: It is one of six states that do not offer parole to any lifers, and one of 10 that mandate life without parole for felony murder (that is, death caused in the process of committing another felony). As a result, Philadelphia County has 2,694 people serving life without parole—more than any other US county or any other country in the world. Pennsylvania also subjects its children to particularly severe treatment and has no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults in the case of murder charges. Seventy percent of JLWOP sentences in Pennsylvania went to children of color.

While in prison, Pace earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University (a pursuit that took 13 years), helped others with their legal appeals in the law library, and participated in the Lifers’ Association, an organization that aims to make all lifers eligible for parole and demonstrate “you’re not the monster that they’re trying to depict you as.” He found solace in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is based on the psychologist’s time in Auschwitz and centers on the premise that even in the darkest situations, life has meaning.

In 2005, Pace felt his first spark of hope when the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for children on the basis that still-developing brains are impulsive and susceptible to peer pressure. The Court cited research suggesting that decision-making areas of the brain continue to develop through young adulthood—even past the age of 18. A certified paralegal, Pace knew how judicial decisions can build upon one another and hoped the same logic would one day be used to question juvenile life without parole. Sure enough, in 2010, the Supreme Court found JLWOP unconstitutional for non-homicide offenses—and then in a landmark 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, ruled that mandatory JLWOP was in violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“I heard the jubilation outside my cell, even from non–life sentenced individuals, when the decision was announced, and it came across on CSPAN,” recalled Abdul Lateef, a former juvenile lifer who was incarcerated from age 17 to 47 and is now chairman of Life after Life. “I remember tears of joy coming down my face. It was the first time that there was a possibility, a real reality of being released. And so, there was a moment of relief.”

But that relief was short-lived. The Supreme Court ruling did not apply to cases retroactively, and although some states opted to resentence previously sentenced juvenile lifers, Pennsylvania did not. Their incarceration dragged on.

Finally, four years later, the Supreme Court made the Miller finding retroactive in its Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling, declaring that already-sentenced juvenile lifers across the country like Pace and Lateef “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Suddenly, 521 people in Pennsylvania were serving unconstitutional sentences. Each county has to hold individual resentencing hearings in which juvenile lifers can call witnesses and present their life history, accomplishments, and reentry plan. The hearings are “mostly about the mitigating factors,” explained Joanna Visser Adjoian, co-director of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), which provides resentencing and reentry assistance to more than 40 of Philadelphia’s newly freed juvenile lifers. “Who were you at the time, who have you become since you were incarcerated on a mandatory basis, and who do you have the capacity to be?”

At Pace’s 2016 hearing, the district attorney offered a new sentence of 30 years to life (the sentence recommended in guidelines from the Pennsylvania legislature), which was two years less than he had already served. The sentence was approved by a judge in October of that year, and he walked out of the prison doors in February 2017.

“It had a surreal feeling to it,” he recalled. “You’re trying to embrace yourself a little bit, and keep yourself grounded, that it’s for real.”

Pace wasn’t the first to be resentenced. Then–District Attorney Seth Williams’s office kicked off the hearings with Philadelphia’s longest-serving juvenile lifer—Joseph Ligon, a 78-year-old who had been in prison for 63 years—and worked its way down by time served. By the spring of 2017, his office had made 89 offers (mostly based on the state guidelines), 71 of which made the individuals immediately parole-eligible.

Current District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former defense lawyer, took office in January 2018 after running a “smart on crime” campaign that promised to reduce incarceration, avoid the death penalty, and end cash bail. In his first week in office, Krasner shook up the department by firing 31 prosecutors. (Krasner replaced Williams, who had pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe and is serving five years in federal prison). Now, as juvenile lifers with less and less time under their belts have their hearings, Krasner has broken from the state legislature’s sentencing guidelines, offering sentences far shorter than the recommended minimums. His office has offered some juvenile lifers new sentences as short as 21 years to life—although, in a warped role-reversal, all of the Philadelphia judges who oversee resentencing hearings have begun rejecting offers for being too short.

By October 2018, Philadelphia had resentenced 240 of 304 people serving JLWOP sentences. Of those with new sentences, about 55 have been resentenced but remain in prison, with new sentences longer than the time they’ve already served. Some 75 are now parole-eligible and await parole hearings. Pace said he has tracked down most of the 100 or so who have been paroled in Philadelphia and invited them to Life After Life.

The Department of Corrections helps most former juvenile lifers secure IDs and medical benefits before release, and Philadelphia County provides funding for their resentencing hearings, but there is no designated state or county budget for juvenile lifer reentry. For the most part, they are on their own.

“Fortunately, I’m working,” said Vincent Sharif Boyd, who went to prison at age 16 and returned in February 2017, at age 52. He moved in with his brother and contracts with a custodial company that assigns work over text message. “Some individuals are not working. Some individuals got their cars. Some individuals are doing better than others,” he said. “But we’re well. We’re free.”

Frank Lee, who went to prison at 15 and came home at 63, in May 2017, is among those who have struggled to find employment. “I do a little work here and there. I don’t have no permanent job yet. Believe me, I would prefer a job,” he said back in June, explaining that he has reached the final stages of multiple interviews, only to be passed over at the last minute. Still, after being accepted recently into an employment-readiness program, he has faith that a job will come through.

Pace, in contrast, had an easier transition than most. He moved in with his sister and found part-time work at two nonprofits, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project and the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings together campus-based college students and incarcerated students for semester-long courses in prisons and jails. He had volunteered with Inside-Out for many years, after taking one of the courses as a prisoner. After demonstrating income from his two jobs, he qualified for a six-month housing voucher and moved into his own apartment. He has since taken over the lease.

Pace said his transition was eased by an unusual amount of interaction over the years with Inside-Out volunteers and employees who “gave me the idea of what exists outside of the box.” Many lifers, however, are shut off from the outside world and excluded from programming. In a cruel twist of fate, Henry Montgomery, the Louisiana man whose lawsuit freed Pace and hundreds of others across the country, remains incarcerated. The 72-year-old was resentenced but denied by the Louisiana parole board, in part because of a lack of participation in prison classes. As a lifer, he was informally barred from classes for his first 30 years in prison.

In Pennsylvania, as well, “a lot of the prisons looked at you as a throwaway,” said Pace. “Like, ‘Why should we invest in you when you’re going spend the rest of your life in prison?’ So now you have these individuals that are beginning to come out, and they have limited skills and they have limited relationships. How do we help them to transition?”

That question prompted Pace to begin inviting guests to some Life After Life meetings to discuss relevant topics like vocational skills and buying a house. And in two meetings earlier this year, group members had the chance to share their experiences, challenges, and successes with a parole officer, several resentencing judges, and an assistant DA from Krasner’s office.

Beyond basics like employment and housing, relationships with loved ones and strangers can also be complicated. Transitioning from a prison cell to his sister’s home, surrounded by her grandchildren, Pace was overwhelmed by noise and excitement. “I felt closed-in at times,” he said. “But how can I say anything when I was just given the blessing to be living with them? How do you deal with those things? These are small things, but they’re big.”

Other challenges are bigger still, harder, born of the knowledge that for years the world moved on without you. “I was excited, euphoric,” Lee recalled of his homecoming. “After about a solid month, the euphoria left. I was glad to be home, but it wasn’t fun. My friends, they’re not around anymore, a lot of them dead. My whole neighborhood, they totally rearranged. Every store was gone. I’m not exaggerating, I mean not one thing.” Growing up in South Philadelphia, his neighborhood was a mix of African Americans, Italians, and Irish. “Now South Philly is mostly all white folks. It’s all built up. Most of the stores are all brand new.” He shrugged. “It is what it is.”

For Abdul Lateef, meanwhile, the decades he was in prison had wiped out much more than his neighborhood. Several years before his release, Lateef’s mother, his last surviving immediate family member, died of cancer. The knowledge that his parents never knew him as a free adult made his release bittersweet.

Still, there are also joys amid all the changes, moments of happiness brought on by the smallest of things. “The sights and the sounds are awesome to me,” said Boyd. “I love going down to the park. I love going to Penn’s Landing and walking. I’m fine. Life is awesome. I can go to the refrigerator at 3 in the morning. I can eat ice cream and have a piece of cake at the same time. I am blessed.”

For all the challenges people have faced returning to the outside world, one negative outcome that hasn’t happened is what judges, prosecutors, and legislators feared when they designed such harsh sentences: new crimes.

Not one of the more than 130 released juvenile lifers in the state of Pennsylvania has reoffended, according to records kept by Brooke McCarthy of Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit law firm. This fits with the statistics: People convicted of homicide are actually very unlikely to reoffend, especially decades later. When more than 100 lifers were released in Maryland in an unrelated 2012 federal-court decision, not one committed a new felony by 2016. And when California paroled 860 convicted murderers from 1995 to 2010, just five were convicted of a new felony by 2011, and none of murder.

But Pennsylvania’s former juvenile lifers know that quiet, successful reintegrations like theirs aren’t what make headlines. They haven’t forgotten about Reggie McFadden, a Pennsylvania lifer who was pardoned in 1994, and went on to murder two people and rape another in New York. The scandal likely cost then-chair of the pardons board, Mark Singel, his race for governor. And he wasn’t the only one to pay the price: In the seven years before McFadden’s release, the board of pardons recommended 118 lifers to the governor for commutation. In the 23 years since, it recommended a total of 15.

Since 2016, Philadelphia has gone from holding 10 percent of the world population serving juvenile life without parole to being at the forefront of JLWOP resentencing. Other places have been slower to get their juvenile lifers back on the street. In Michigan, the state with the second-most JLWOP sentences, resentencing is tied up in the courts as county prosecutors argue that 247 out of 363 people are incapable of rehabilitation and deserve to keep their LWOP sentences. (The Supreme Court didn’t ban JLWOP sentences outright; it just limited it to those for whom “rehabilitation is impossible,” to be determined on a case-by-case basis.) Meanwhile, prosecutors throughout Louisiana (the state with the third-most JLWOP sentences) and other counties in Pennsylvania continue to offer juvenile lifers extremely long new sentences.

And the Supreme Court rulings only affect those sentenced to life without parole as children, not the vast majority who were convicted as adults. More than 53,000 Americans continue to serve life without parole, including more than 5,300 in Pennsylvania. “Lawyers across the Commonwealth and across the country are considering what the next steps are,” said Visser Adjoian. “Challenges are popping up in lots of places around expanding the definition of who qualifies for Miller and Montgomery.” Some cases argue the Supreme Court decisions should apply to plaintiffs who committed crimes soon after their 18th birthdays, those who must serve many decades before being eligible for parole, or those who are technically parole-eligible but repeatedly denied by the parole board.

“A lot of the [remaining] lifers are our friends and have become essentially family members of ours,” said Pace. “We know that they are equally deserving of this opportunity. We know that us doing well really makes the case for them as well. And our success is reflected on them.”

He said it’s unfortunate that whole populations are punished for one person’s mistake. “Sometimes I worry about that. Because inevitably—you know, human beings—someone might make a mistake. But it shouldn’t be reflected on all.” This is one of the reasons Juvenile Law Center tracks the cohort’s success. “Our hope is that if that does unfortunately happen, we will have tracked enough people to show that it’s an anomaly,” said McCarthy.

Two years ago, the 15 men at the Life After Life meeting remained locked in life sentences, no matter what programming and courses they completed, relationships they built, apologies they made, or how their brains matured as they grew up. “You once labeled them as lifers, that they were the worst of the worst,” Pace said. “But the reality is they’re coming out and they’re not getting involved in negative stuff. So what is it? I think there’s something to make people ponder, like, what was this all about?”

As a 17-year-old, he continued, “I was certainly going through identity issues, trying to discover exactly who I was. The streets has an identity. Had to be tough. Had to be mean. That’s the environment in which a lot of us come from.… That still doesn’t excuse the fact that someone’s life was interrupted as a result of my behavior. I still have to be responsible for that.”

At the group meeting in June, the men fine-tuned Life After Life’s mission statement, which begins: “Life After Life is a unique community of formerly incarcerated men and women who were sentenced to a term of life without the possibility of parole (also known as death by incarceration) for acts of homicide committed as children.” One man suggested replacing “homicide committed as children” with the alternative phrase “crimes committed as children.” Of homicide, he said, “We’ve done that, but that’s in the past now.”

The rest of the group respectfully disagreed, wanting to lay bare the truth of their experiences.

“It’s just reality. You can’t escape it,” someone said. “We know what happened in our lives.”

They unanimously voted to keep the word.

“We realize deeply and intimately that it is a combination of grace, as well as compassion, along with the law, that created this particular circumstance, this opportunity for us,” said Lateef. “And with that comes huge responsibility that we all take seriously. It doesn’t absolve us from the debt that we owe to those people who we have harmed, to our family, and to our communities that we’ve come from.”

He continued: “And then there is that obligation to be pioneers for those who are to come after us, in trying to pave the way. And—in a thoughtful way—be a real reflection and manifestation of the wisdom of the Court’s ruling. And show that it was in fact justified, because we aren’t the sum total of the worst deed we did.”

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