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Commentary: A second chance for juvenile lifers

By Cal Barnett-Mayotte On the afternoon of Dec. 2, in courtroom 1105 at the Philadelphia Center for Criminal Justice, I asked the man next to me how he knew Doug Hollis.

By Cal Barnett-Mayotte

On the afternoon of Dec. 2, in courtroom 1105 at the Philadelphia Center for Criminal Justice, I asked the man next to me how he knew Doug Hollis.

Andre McMillan smiled.

"Doug, man. He kept me out of trouble in there," he replied. "Doug taught me how to laugh, to have fun in prison." McMillan was one of Hollis' many friends in the courtroom that day. Most had been incarcerated with Hollis; all, like McMillan, credited him with changing their lives.

A few minutes later, Hollis emerged from the holding room. He is a 58-year-old African American man with a gray-speckled goatee. In his blue Department of Corrections jumpsuit, he exuded both confidence and humility.

Hollis has spent the last 40 years in prison for a crime committed in 1975, when he was 17. He was in court for something long overdue and well-deserved: a resentencing hearing that could lead to his freedom.

Hollis is one of 2,300 juvenile lifers around the country - 500 in Pennsylvania, 300 of those in Philadelphia - eligible for resentencing in the wake of two recent Supreme Court decisions. The first, Miller v. Alabama, in 2012 declared mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles. In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that "incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth" and concluded that life without parole is "at odds with a child's capacity for change."

In January, Montgomery v. Louisiana made the Miller decision retroactive, giving prisoners like Hollis hope of release after decades of hopelessness. These decisions have had a particularly profound impact in Philadelphia, home to 13 percent of the nation's juvenile lifers. Hearings here are proceeding at a pace of two to six a week.

On May 28, 1975, Hollis and a friend approached Anna and Henry Inej from behind and tried to steal the woman's handbag. When she resisted, they stabbed her. Inej later died from the wounds.

Hollis was tried as an adult and sentenced to life without parole.

"When he was sentenced, he could've said, 'Well, I'm not getting out, it doesn't matter what I do,'" Bradley Bridge, Hollis' attorney, said at the Dec. 2 hearing. "That's not the route he took."

"He had regrets right from the door," Ralph Whitfield, a friend of Hollis' from prison, told me. Whitfield served as Hollis' best man when he married Diana Louise Hollis, a nurse in the prison infirmary, nearly 30 years ago. "Some people have been no good ... their whole lives," Whitfield said. "Others deserve second chances. That's Doug Hollis."

"I wasn't sure he was gonna make it in there," said Whitfield. "This guy has a heart of gold. People liked him right away."

That much was clear. Hollis' friends and family, packed into the four hardwood benches of room 1105, were eager to tell Commonwealth Court Judge Kathryn Lewis the positive impact Hollis had on them. Among the parade of well-wishers was Tyrone Jones, one of the very first juvenile lifers released after Montgomery. The men have known each other for 40 years.

Jones described Hollis as "a big brother." Hollis, who has a demeanor more suited to a library than a prison yard, eyed but did not use the box of tissues in front of him.

Francis Warrington, 47 and white, is another juvenile lifer resentenced on that Friday afternoon. He grappled with tears as he addressed the judge. "I want you to know I have never forgotten why I'm in prison," he said. "I live every day trying to make amends for my actions."

Hollis and Warrington long not to be defined by their crimes. These are men who have spent their lives trying to atone for the horrific, stupid things they did as teenagers.

They should be given the chance. Listening to these two men's stories and the testimonies of their supporters, it is hard to fathom what keeping these men in prison will accomplish, especially considering the expense. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University concluded that the United States wastes $20 billion in "unnecessary incarceration," partially because of especially harsh sentences.

Judge Lewis resentenced the two men to 30 years to life. Both are eligible to apply for parole immediately.

Citing all the people in the courtroom, Lewis told Hollis: "This is a testament to how you've chosen to spend your time. On the street there are people running from those who would seek to be a positive influence. You have proven to attract people, influence them."

"Everyone here today, you could see a light on their faces when they spoke of you. I can't help but think that was your light shining through them," the judge continued. "I think this world, so direly in need of people like you, will be better off for your freedom."

Cal Barnett-Mayotte is a junior at Swarthmore College.