Juvenile ‘lifer’ gets show of support before new sentencing hearing in Philly

Activists held a demonstration at a Philadelphia church on Sunday in support of Kempis “Ghani” Songster and other juvenile offenders have been given sentences of life in prison without parole. 

A court hearing today will determine a new sentence for Songster, one of 300 “juvenile lifers” in Philadelphia who became eligible for resentencing after a Supreme Court ruling overturning mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. Songster was given a  life sentence for a murder committed when he was 15. 

Many of the 200 or so gathered at Arch Street Methodist Church on Sunday afternoon wore orange shirts that declared, “I believe in a right to redemption.” They came to discuss as a community what a just sentence for Songster and other juvenile lifers would look like.

“We’re trying to model the kind of society and the kind of justice system we would like to see,” said Sean Damon of the Amistad Law Project, one of the event’s organizers.

The demonstrators broke into small groups to brainstorm ideas for how juvenile offenders can make up for their crimes without being sentenced to what many of them called “death by incarceration.”

Family members of Songster and other juvenile lifers were included in the crowd. At least one participant had relatives who lost their lives to violent crime.

“No amount of time will bring my loved ones back to life,” said Julie Burnett of North Philadelphia. “I believe everybody has a chance to be rehabilitated and has a chance at redemption.”

The demonstrators marched with their list of ideas to the courthouse just down the street where Songster’s hearing will be held.

Songster has been in prison for three decades for the murder of another teenager in his drug gang in 1987. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling ordering new sentencing hearings for juvenile lifers, the district attorney’s office offered Songster a new sentence that would keep him in prison at least 5 more years. He will seek an earlier release in court today.

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