Philadelphia is home to the most juvenile lifers in the country, and for a week home to the Democratic National Convention.
Incarceration and criminal justice reform came up in several speeches last night at the convention.
“To communities devastated by both mass incarceration and murder, join us at the ballot box and together we will shift our nation’s priorities away from the failed war on drugs and towards rehabilitation and the re-incorporation of men and women returning from prison into our economy,” said former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.
Some 300 people sentenced as kids are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole because for years that was a mandatory sentence in Pennsylvania for juveniles convicted of murder or felony murder.
That’s what happened to Robert Holbrook.
We visited his sister, Anita Colon, in her home outside Philadelphia. In 1990 on Robert’s 16th birthday, some drug dealers offered Robert $500 dollars to be the lookout on what was supposed to be a drug deal.
But the wife of a rival drug dealer was killed, and even though Robert didn’t witness it, under Pennsylvania law, he got life.
“My youngest daughter, Nadia, who, to give some perspective is 20 now. He’s been in prison for her entire life,” Colon said.
We talked with Anita about that day 26 years ago when her brother was sentenced.
“I remember it very, very well,” Colon said. “Even though, I’m sure at some point we were told that there was a possibility that he could be given that sentence, I remember the shock, and just the devastation. My stepfather kept asking the attorney, ‘Well, life. What does that mean? How many years?’
The attorney told her stepfather, “It’s life.”
“Yeah, but how many years?” her stepfather replied. “25, 20?”
Her stepfather couldn’t grasp that this sentence was all of Robert’s life.
“’That can’t possibly be so, he’s a little kid. How can that be?’” Colon recalled her father saying.
Twenty-six years have passed since Robert’s sentencing, and “life has never, ever been the same,” says Conlon.
The first few years of Robert’s imprisonment were hard for the entire family, in particular Robert’s mother.
“Everything, every day, every occasion was shadowed by the fact that her son was in prison, and probably for the rest of his life. You’re thinking about how you wish Robert was here. And so it’s sadness and it’s guilt. So much guilt,” Colon said. “You know, what could you, should you have done. What could I have done more? Should I have locked him in his room? Should I have told my mother ‘Lock him in the basement?’ You absolutely go through that.”
Conlon watched her mother’s sadness, but she appealed to legislators and human rights groups.
“There really was no one advocating about this issue. It wasn’t considered an issue,” Colon said.
She continued to support her brother as the years went on.
“It wasn’t until years later I realized this wasn’t just some anomaly. It was something that was happening all over this country. So then I became an activist,” she said.
“My mother wrote to my brother, literally every day from the time he was incarcerated until she no longer could, months before her death,” Colon said.
“I love my brother, so without a doubt I wouldn’t have forgotten about him. However, I promised my mother on her deathbed, not to be dramatic — it’s very true — that he would never be forgotten. That we would visit him, we would write to him, that he would know his family, and that I would fight and do whatever I could to free him. And those were the two things I promised her,” she said.
In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles unconstitutional.
When the Miller decision came out, Colon cried tears of relief and joy. Then she called her oldest daughter to share the news.
“When she answered the phone I couldn’t talk because I was so emotional,” Colon said. “She could hear I was crying, and I was trying to get the words out. And she was like, ‘What’s wrong, mom, what’s wrong?’ I was like, nothing. It’s not bad, it’s good.’ It was just like ‘Finally. Finally. We’ve been fighting for so long.’”
But many states fought making that decision retroactive, including Pennsylvania.
“It was just devastating,” Colon said.
Then this year, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled again that its 2012 decision was retroactive.
Now, Robert is eligible for resentencing.
We asked Colon what she would say to those who might mention regardless of his age, her brother was involved with the crime.
“What I would say first of all is that you can’t compare in anyway what an adult should have known to a child, and that is the basis of all these Supreme Court cases, that kids are different,” she said.
“We spend so much time as a society and we’re so concerned with how to protect children because we know they can’t make decisions for themselves. In every other aspect, other than if they commit a crime. So all these ways, joining the military, to get married. All these things, we protect our youth and say you’re not mature enough to make this decision in, or to do this, so we are going to take care of you.”
She recognizes, though, that her brother does deserve punishment for his involvement.
“At no point do we feel as if he should have just been able to walk away. But to take away his life, to tell him at the age of 16, when he hasn’t even been able to finish high school, your life is worthless at this point and there is nothing you can offer society is completely unjust and unfair,” she said.
Anita Colon, Philadelphia resident.