Should a 15-Year Old Spend 68 Years in Jail?

Joe Ligon, believed to be the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the United States, has been released from a Pennsylvania prison after spending nearly seven decades behind bars.

And all I can say, it’s about time.

Ligon was incarcerated in February 1953 at the age of 15, given a mandatory life sentence after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a robbery and stabbing spree in Philadelphia with four other teenage boys. The crime left six people wounded and two people dead.

Ligon admitted to stabbing at least one of the eight people stabbed that day, but has maintained he never killed anyone.

“The child that committed those crimes back in 1953 no longer exists. The person that came out of prison in 2021 is 83 years old, has grown, changed, and is no longer a threat,” his lawyer Bradley Bridge said. “He has amply repaid society for the damage and harm that he did. And now, it’s appropriate that he spends the last years of his life in freedom.”

There has been a good deal of research that the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, and as a result the juvenile shouldn’t be treated as an adult when it comes to sentencing. If you are interested, here is some background reading.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided that Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 case in which mandatory juvenile life sentences without the prospect of parole were deemed unlawful, should be applied retroactively. The decision effectively resentenced Ligon to 35 years to life, and made him eligible for parole since he had been in prison for over 60 years.

However, Ligon wanted total freedom, he did not want to be subject to parole.

That was consistent with a decision he made back in the 1970s, when Ligon and his accomplices were granted the option of clemency from Pennsylvania’s governor. While two of the men chose to accept the offer, clemency meant being on parole, Ligon rejected the offer. Ligon did not want to be subject to supervision the rest of his life.

Bridge, who has represented Ligon for 15 years now, ultimately argued that a mandatory life sentence for a crime Ligon committed as a juvenile was unconstitutional. After a failed hearing at the Pennsylvania intermediate appellate court, Bridge managed to bring the case to the federal court and won the issue in November 2020, which ultimately granted Ligon freedom under his own terms in 2021.

He is now a free man, and trying to adapt to such a life. Such a transition can be overwhelming, but fortunately there are people who help with such transitions. And Ligon eventually hopes to be one of those who helps others facing such transitions.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to spend 68 years in jail. The mental resolve necessary to survive so long has to extraordinarily difficult. As such, I think Ligon will eventually adapt and thrive in his new life as a free man.

Asked what it was like to be back in the world a day and a half after his release, Ligon had this to say:
“Beautiful,” he said. “Beautiful.”


57 thoughts on “Should a 15-Year Old Spend 68 Years in Jail?

  1. 🤔 I do not think that someone who is fifteen years of age should spend sixty-eight of their years in prison.

    Now, do not get me wrong, Jim. I am in no way hinting that they should not serve their sentence. They should be given one that is reduced.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sentencing in this country seems nuts to me. Someone might get sentenced to 10 years, for a crime where someone else might get only 1 or 2 years. But what’s worse to me is the way prisons are run. They often don’t provide the help a person may need to succeed after being released. And so they get out, and find they can’t survive without committing crimes. Once someone gets caught in the revolving door cycle of incarceration, it can be hard to escape.

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    1. Brad and I were talking just last night about what you said with people going right back into prison, because of not being able survive on the outside.the justice and prison sentence definitely needs help!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I do admire his commitment to wanting to be completely free. and there’s no doubt that our criminal justice system is biased in many ways. Race, wealth, connections, …


  3. I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption. When Brooks Hatlen (played by James Whitmore) is finally released from prison at age 73, he commits suicide because he cannot adjust to life on the outside.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. great point, Pete. That was such a sad part of that great movie. Our criminal justice system does not get people ready for life after prison, so it’s no surprise that many people end up in jail again…

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  4. I believe the punishment should fit the crime…I also believe that a 15-year-old boy particularly way back then did not have a chance given his colour…That sentence was way too long at that age 15/20 years should have been ample it is an example of a legal system which is not fit for purpose and hasn’t been for many a year…

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  5. To sentence a young person to life in prison is an indicator that rehabilitation was not a consideration of the sentencing. To be honest, I find it somewhat amazing that he retained any desire to rejoin a society that had treated him so unfairly. I hope that in the years he has left he can find solace in helping others who continue to suffer at the hands of injustice and inequality.

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  6. I think the answer is… it depends.

    At 15 a good argument is there age, but it depends on the crime, circumstances, and the victims.

    There was a case in the uk, where two teenage boys killed a child called Jamie Bulger. They did a number of horrific things to him, did their time and have now been released under new identities. In that case I could understand some form of life long punishment, maybe not all jail time though.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It is sad that so many ruin their own lives as well as those of others. I think families need more support. We often know which ones are at risk. It’s difficult to break the cycle.

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  8. I don’t think the sentence that he has served is fair in relation to his age at the time of the crimes he committed, and share your hope that he can adjust to life and make a contribution. It will be a huge adjustment, though: the world has changed substantially whilst he has been incarcerated. I guess we can only be thankful that the death penalty wasn’t given to him.

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  9. Unimaginable! It reminds me of a Canadian case of another 15 year old, Steven Truscott who was sentenced to death in 1959 for the rape and murder of classmate Lynne Harper. He was scheduled to be hanged; however, the federal cabinet reprieved him and he was sentenced to life in prison and released on parole in 1969. Five decades later, in 2007, his conviction was overturned on the basis that key forensic evidence was weaker than had been portrayed at trial.

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  10. That is so sad. I have always found it barbaric that prisoners can spend years on death row and still be executed. Sometimes we might think a life sentence is not long enough when a prisoner is let out after 12 years! But this sentence is beyond imagining. I hope we hear that he is finding some peace.

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  11. I am a believer in fairness, Jim, and with the limited knowledge I have of the USA justice system, it does feel as if this man had a very harsh sentence compared to may others who commit crimes that are just as bad and destructive. Personally, I think pedophiles are the worst criminals in the world and should get the death sentence.

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    1. I agree that it did seem like a tough sentence, especially for a juvenile. I also agree that pedophiles are among the worst, but I don’t believe in the death sentence for anyone.

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