If you don’t know Joe Ligon, it’s because he has spent most of his life behind bars. If there is one thing that might help give him the sense that his life was not completely wasted, it’s that his story is part of a larger narrative that might change how we handle juvenile justice going forward. When Joe Ligon walked out of prison recently, he was the oldest juvenile “lifer” in the country after having spent 68 years in prison.
Joe Ligon began his life in prison at the age of 15 in December of 1953. Joe Ligon was no angel—he was convicted of first-degree murder after he and several other teens attacked multiple people, killing two and injuring six in South Philly. They were accused of being in a gang, one that went on a crime spree that included robbery, assault, and ultimately murder.
Joe Ligon maintained throughout that while he was guilty of taking part in the robberies and assaults, he did not take a life even as the prosecution said he alone was responsible for both murders. He was given life without parole. In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that automatic life sentences for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment and his sentence was changed from life without parole to 35 years to life.
Though eligible for parole after the ruling, Joe Ligon did not apply. His lawyer continued to argue that juvenile life without parole was unconstitutional and a District Court judge agreed, ruling that the prosecution had three months to either resentence or release him. He was released and he now begins life outside of prison at the age of 82.
There are people who will argue that you do the crime, you do the time. I don’t necessarily disagree, but not all time is equal, there’s black time and white time and the two are not the same. My point is that when it comes to crime and punishment, especially involving juveniles, the discussion is a lot more nuanced than many care to admit, and one of the biggest obstacles to reform is the tendency to see the crime as the only thing that is true about the accused, especially when they’re black, regardless of guilt or innocence.
In Joe Ligon’s case, he grew up in Alabama and dropped out of school in the third grade. That kid never stood a chance. The year he went into prison, Dwight Eisenhower, our 34th President, was wrestling with how to get us out of the Korean War. Civil Rights as we know it had not yet begun and no one knew Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., and Joe McCarthy was hunting communists.
But it’s the changes in the daily stuff of life that astound more; for Joe Ligon its everything never experienced whether riding in a car, using the devices of modern life, or the temperament of people and how far removed the life of 1953 is from the life of 2021.
If it’s astounding to think about the history and the changes in society over 68 years, then what about the changes in someone’s life? If we can ever get to a place where we consider that prison for juvenile offenders should be as much about rehabilitation as punishment, then we have to allow for the possibility that these juveniles can be rehabilitated to society’s benefit.
The Court considers life without parole for juvenile offenders’ cruel and unusual for the individual and they’re right. Yet I also believe that if we dismiss all possibility of rehabilitation and redemption and simply have lives rotting behind bars like Joe Ligon’s, it’s cruel and unusual for the rest of us, whether we realize it or not.