Juvenile Lifers Struggle To Navigate Reentry After Release In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles automatically sentenced to life without parole must have a chance for release. But juvenile lifers who left prison say society wasn't prepared for them.

Juvenile Lifers Struggle To Navigate Reentry After Release

Juvenile Lifers Struggle To Navigate Reentry After Release

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In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles automatically sentenced to life without parole must have a chance for release. But juvenile lifers who left prison say society wasn't prepared for them.


Foster Tarver spent 49 years in prison. At the age of 17, he was convicted of murder for being an accomplice to a fatal bank robbery. He had been sentenced to life, but in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that people like him - often referred to as juvenile lifers - must get a chance at release. From member station WESA in Pittsburgh, An-Li Herring tells us what happened when Tarver got out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

AN-LI HERRING, BYLINE: It's been almost a year since Foster Tarver left prison, but he didn't get his Pittsburgh apartment until a couple months ago. The walls are bare, but he's finished moving in his furniture, practically all of it donated.

FOSTER TARVER: Just make sure that I got the bed, this chair and that ottoman. One of the landlords gave me that lamp over there. Everything's appreciated.

HERRING: Tarver is one of about 450 juvenile lifers in the U.S. who have left prison since the 2016 Supreme Court decision. He says government programs meant to facilitate the group's reentry into society have done little to help him. Upon his release, Tarver wanted to pursue a career in law, having worked for seven years in the prison law library. But the 68-year-old man says reentry caseworkers didn't take his ambition seriously.

TARVER: I'm at that age most people are retired. That's how society deals with you, right? As you get to a certain age, they begin to, like, phase you out.

HERRING: Tarver says some caseworkers tried to push him into a warehouse job. But he decided to enroll in community college instead and is studying to become a paralegal. Many juvenile lifers, however, end up underemployed doing menial labor, says Abd'Allah Lateef of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. A juvenile lifer himself, Lateef says reentrants are especially dependent on the support of family and members of the community. And he says this is especially problematic for juvenile lifers.

ABD'ALLAH LATEEF: Children who have been disappeared from society as such the young and tender age have really been deprived from that process of socialization and social network development.

HERRING: Lateef, who lives in Philadelphia, says government programs don't meet this need. But Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel defends his state's approach, saying his department offers a range of reentry services specifically for juvenile lifers. In any case, he notes that in Pennsylvania, which incarcerates the most juvenile lifers in the country, only about 1% of that population has returned to prison following release.

JOHN WETZEL: Primarily, men and women who got out were prepared to get out and were prepared to be good citizens. But I think that the numbers would suggest that our approach was successful thus far.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We've had a couple of new folks join us. We're just going around and introducing ourselves.

HERRING: Tarver says it wasn't until he gave up on standard reentry programs that things began to turn around for him. Instead, he started to build his own network of support and joined a grassroots coalition of ex-offenders, academics and others in the community. The group calls itself a think tank. And each week, participants squeeze around a massive conference room table to discuss issues related to incarceration.

TARVER: My name's Foster Tarver. I'm experiencing re-entry after spending years in prison.

HERRING: Through the think tank, Tarver met a retired state cop who helped him get housing and a job as a paralegal. It was that policeman who introduced Tarver to the landlord that rents to him and the law firm that hired him. And before that, another juvenile lifer in the group helped Tarver enroll in community college. Ricky Olds says, like Tarver, he couldn't rely on standard reentry services when he was released from prison in 2017. Olds had been sentenced to life at age 14. He says when he got out of prison 38 years later, he received the most help from other ex-offenders.

RICKY OLDS: So these are the people that understand exactly what you need.

HERRING: And Olds says they stepped in when his family did not.

OLDS: Most of my family members were not born when I went away, so they don't have this emotional - like, I was a picture on a wall, not a real person.

HERRING: Ricky Olds says it was by taking matters into his own hands that he found people who were invested in his well-being and could help.

For NPR News, I'm An-Li Herring in Pittsburgh.

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