Since before most Americans were born, Joseph Ligon has been serving a life sentence. When he was convicted in a spree of burglaries, the eastern Pennsylvanian court gave the then-fifteen-year-old Ligon, a Black man, life in prison. Now, Ligon has become the longest-serving juvenile inmate in America – and he has just been freed after spending the last 68 years of his life behind bars despite never having killed anyone.
In 1953, Ligon’s life came to a grinding halt after the east Pennsylvania court found him guilty in a string of robberies. He was one in a group of drunk teens who engaged in violent behavior, which included assaults. Because the crimes were violent, two victims died, but Ligon continues to profess his innocence in their deaths. During an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he continued to claim he was innocent of murder or manslaughter.
The photo above was taken in 1963 – after Ligon had spent a decade of his life behind bars.
He was given new hope in 2012 when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life sentences because it was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Although the ruling was made on a federal level, Pennsylvania, and a few other states, refused to reduce their juvenile life sentences. Ligon was forced to continue to suffer behind bars.
However, four years later, the Supreme Court ordered states to reduce applicable sentences. This meant that Ligon and five hundred other “juvenile lifers” in Pennsylvania would be let out of jail.
In the wake of this change, Ligon was resentenced to thirty-five years to life. He did not want to take the parole offer for a simple reason.
“I like to be free,” he said. “With parole, you got to see the parole people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.”
Since 2006, Bradley Bridge has worked to defend Ligon as his public defender. He was the one who went in front of the federal court to ask that Ligon be set free after 68 years behind bars.
“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,” he wrote.
It took some time, but in November, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed with Bridge’s motion. They ordered the Ligon to be released within 90 days or get a new sentence.
On Thursday, Ligon tasted freedom for the first time in nearly seven decades when he was freed from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.
“That was no sad day for me,” Ligon said.
Bridge was willing to work so hard to free Ligon because he felt he was punished too harshly.
“We waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating, and we waste money by over-incarcerating,” Bridge said. “His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting each. Hopefully, his release, and the release of the juvenile lifers in general, will cause a re-evaluation of the way we incarcerate people.”
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