I wish that every troubled young African American boy could meet Joe Ligon.
I hope they stumble upon the picture of the white-haired man taken shortly after his release from a state prison in Pennsylvania. I wonder if they would realize that he was once just like them, and that they could end up like him.
Ligon went to prison at 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 Court ruled in 2012 that sentencing youths under the age of 18 to mandatory life without parole for crimes such as murder was unconstitutional. Illinois, however, is one of a diminishing number of states that still allows discretionary life without parole, in which judges decide whether it is warranted.
Even if a child isn’t directly sentenced to life without parole, he or she could still spend their life behind bars, according to the youth advocacy group Restore Justice. The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that a 41-year prison sentence amounts to a de facto life sentence for children.
Ligon is an old 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 solid white Afro, appeared content with his situation and optimistic about the future.
“This is no sad day for me,” he told The Washington Post. “Feel real good. Like a dream come true. I anticipated this from Day One.”
Many of us are happy that he is finally free, but we also feel sad for him.
We look at Ligon and see a wasted life — decades of humanity snatched away by an unjust judicial system. We mourn for the youthful dreams and untapped potential thrown away by a troubled teenager who could see no future beyond the present.
Ligon’s story is no different from thousands of other young Black boys who dwell in a pit of precarious moments, with no regard for their own lives or anyone else’s.
One February night in 1953, Ligon and four other teenage boys went on a robbery and killing spree in Philadelphia. They were drinking wine and having fun, tearing through the streets of his neighborhood. They stabbed eight men, two of whom died.
Ligon admitted stabbing one of the men who survived, and his attorney instructed him to plead guilty to that. However, he was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Though his incarceration might seem extreme, Ligon’s story is a familiar one. In cities such as Chicago, where young Black boys senselessly injure or kill each other every day, many young Ligons already are in the prison system or in the pipeline.
In 2017, the Supreme Court required states to review more than 2,300 active cases where children had been sentenced to life without parole, 70% involving people of color. States could either release them or resentence them.
Ligon turned down an offer of parole in 2017, just as he had in the 1970s when the Pennsylvania governor offered him clemency. He rejected it, he said, because he did not like the idea of being on parole.
In Illinois, criminal laws continue to be unjustly applied to African American youths. They are more often tried as adults, or their juvenile sentences are longer and harsher than their white counterparts.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill in 2019 that took a step toward fixing the state’s juvenile sentencing laws. It allows for parole hearings for some people under the age of 21 who face extreme sentences, but it does not apply to youths sentenced to life without parole.
Illinois Rep. Rita Mayfield introduced legislation last week that would ban all life without parole sentences for people under the age of 21. If it passes, Illinois will become the 25th state plus the District of Columbia to do away with such sentencing entirely.
The issue has gained renewed interest as Chicago officials deal with a surge in carjackings, many of which involve youths, some as young as 12.
Supporters argue that much of the youth-related crime is a symptom of the societal breakdown that has created a landscape of joblessness, inadequate education and poverty. They insist that locking young people up for long periods of time cannot solve these problems.
Black boys don’t get a break. Ligon and many others can attest to that.
If African American boys could look into Ligon’s eyes, they might see how spending years behind bars changes the way one views life. His words offer wisdom that can only come from someone who has suffered prolonged pain from making bad choices.
“I’m a grown-up now,” Ligon told CNN. “I’m not a kid anymore. Not only am I a grown man, I’m an old man and getting older every day.”
He is speaking to every young African American who is caught up in the streets. I hope they can hear him.