Fifth Estate: State’s children on lockdown

Philadelphia Weekly’s Jamaal Abdul-Alim addresses a sticky issue with poise.

They look like children but act like adults. Last week in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Senate met to discuss whether the country’s most violent juvenile offenders should face a lifetime behind bars or be given an opportunity for parole. Pennsylvania law currently states that juveniles convicted of murder can’t receive parole.

In his Philadelphia Weekly article “No Second Chances,” reporter Jamaal Abdul-Alim notes that victims’ loved ones, like Jodi Dotts, have a simple answer to that question. She “scoffed at the notion of ‘second chances’ for juvenile killers.”

Why give killers a second chance at a new life when they’ve already destroyed another family?

One of the most pressing issues that Abdul-Alim writes about is the ongoing debate of juveniles understanding the consequences of their crimes. He cites the example of Stacey Torrance, who committed robbery at the age of 14 and then said he didn’t know the repercussions of his actions.

Torrance, a first-time offender, was sentenced to life in prison for robbery, in which the victim was killed by other people hours after he left the scene. At first glance, an outsider could label Torrance as another offender who blames the city for his actions.

Another concern Abdul-Alim brings up is the issue of first-time offenders.

“Not all juvenile lifers are actual killers, and some are first-time offenders – factors that advocates say should be considered when juveniles are punished for their crimes,” Abdul-Alim said.

Maybe there is a tiny bit of truth to Torrance’s claims. After all, he was a first-time offender. If Torrance had a role model to look up to, he might not be behind bars.

Philadelphia is no stranger to juvenile violence. Who can forget Sean Patrick Conroy, a 36-year-old Starbucks employee who died of respiratory distress after being attacked by four juveniles on a SEPTA platform last March?

Brutal violence has left the city in a state of agitation. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, there have been 252 murders in Philadelphia so far in 2008. Nineteen of the people arrested and charged in these homicide cases were juveniles.

Abdul-Alim’s article is superior in that it objectively addresses all of the issues that come with violent juvenile offenders, without showing favoritism for either side throughout the piece.

It’s easy to be harsh, but even easier to turn a blind eye to all of the factors. In Pennsylvania, 452 juveniles in the prison system are sentenced to life without parole. That’s 452 juveniles who will die behind state bars for heinous crimes they committed under the age of 18.

Do we pin the blame solely on the juveniles involved? When do we start to acknowledge that the blame should be spread to both parents and members of the community? Each year, fewer and fewer residents are registering to volunteer in after-school programs across Philadelphia. It’s no wonder that so many juveniles are committing violent crimes. Without guidance and support, many of the city’s youth are learning that the only way to get attention is by committing a crime. It’s no way to go through life.

Abdul-Alim’s report of juvenile offenders is a reminder that this issue is far from over. No matter what the Pennsylvania Senate decides, the topic will remain close to both the victims’ families and juvenile offenders. For them, there is no easy solution.

Stacy Lipson can be reached at

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