Tuesday, February 16, 2021

America's Oldest Juvenile Lifer Is a Black Man Who Was Released in Philadelphia After 68 Years in Prison

It should surprise absolutely no one that America’s oldest and longest-serving juvenile offender is a Black man. 


Joe Ligon was 15 years old when he received a life sentence in Philadelphia for taking part in a series of robberies and assaults that left two people dead—people he has always denied killing while admitting that he was involved in the other crimes with other teens. He was sentenced in 1953, but even in 2021, it’s easy to imagine a judge deciding a Black child should spend the rest of his life behind bars, whether he himself killed anyone or not. Last Thursday, Ligon, at 83 years old, walked out of the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County after being imprisoned for 68 years. 

So, according to the Inquirer, Bradley Bridge—a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia who’s represented Ligon since 2006—spent three more years fighting to get his client released with time served until he finally won in federal court by arguing that the “constitution requires that the entire sentence, both the minimum and maximum terms imposed on a juvenile, be individualized—and a one size fits all cannot pass constitutional muster.”

Because the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed with Bridge’s argument, a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered on Nov. 13, 2020, that Ligon was either to be resentenced or released within 90 days. The clock ran out on that 90-day window Thursday and Ligon became a free man.

“I’m looking at all the tall buildings. This is all new to me. This never existed,” Ligon said upon his release, according to The Hill.

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