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After Supreme Court Decision, A Former Juvenile Lifer On What A 2nd Chance Meant

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Supreme Court just made it easier for judges to sentence kids to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In a 6-3 ruling, the justices reversed earlier precedents that favored more leniency for minors. We're going to talk now with someone who has firsthand experience with this. John Pace was sentenced to life in prison without parole when he was 17 years old.

JOHN PACE: You know, you really haven't formed a sense of who you are. And so you're going into this environment, trying to figure this out. I will tell you honestly there is some level of fear.

SHAPIRO: He pleaded guilty to murder as a teenager, and more than 30 years later, he was released after a 2016 Supreme Court decision. It found that people like him serving mandatory minimum sentences without parole for crimes they committed as minors had a right to argue for their release. He now helps other people in his shoes return to society - people who entered prison as minors without any real hope of getting out.

PACE: A lot of us really don't know what life really means until years later, you know, whether - and in my particular case, I pled guilty to second-degree under the pretense that I would get out after a certain many years. So I didn't really know that I would be spending the rest of my life in prison. But I'm telling you, though, actually, a lot of young people actually don't know it until you've been in prison for probably 10 to 15 years, and then you begin to face the reality that this could mean the rest of your life.

And so, you know - and in my particular case, you know, because I didn't, you know, believe that from the very beginning, I was very optimistic. And, you know, one of the things - I was proactive in terms of taking responsibility for my actions. I wanted to demonstrate that I was more than my - that worst moment that I had in my life.

SHAPIRO: What did it mean to you to have the opportunity for a second chance?

PACE: Well, I'm very grateful. And I don't know if you know Philadelphia is ground zero in the sentencing of children to a life sentence without the possibility of parole. And it was over 300 that actually was sentenced to life without parole in Philadelphia. And so close to 250 have been released. And I deal with a lot of them, and I can tell you how grateful they are to have this opportunity and to demonstrate that they are better than that worst moment that they had in their lives.

SHAPIRO: You were 17 years old when you committed the crime that got you convicted. Can you just tell us a little bit about what that kid was like and how different he was from the person we're talking to today?

PACE: Yeah. So I was a quiet person growing up. I was very quiet. I was a follower, and so I was easily gullible to many of the negative influences that existed in the community. And so what happened is, unfortunately, I became involved with some of those negative influences. And - but it was very short-lived. And so immediately, once - and in my particular situation, the victim in my particular case did not pass away until 10 days later. I was originally just charged with robbery, possession of an instrument of a crime and aggravated assault. And so that was the most devastating moment in my life, the thought that I was responsible for someone's life being taken.

SHAPIRO: And the person who emerged from prison - how different was he from the person who began serving that sentence at the age of 17 more than 30 years earlier?

PACE: Well, the person that emerged from prison was drastically different because, you know, now I had, I think, you know, formed a sense of who I wanted to be, the role that I wanted to play in society, you know, being able to play a role in, you know, young people's lives, being able to utilize my experience to hopefully allow them to not make the same decisions that I made.

SHAPIRO: There are some people who are going to argue some crimes are so severe that, no matter what age the perpetrator is, that person deserves to spend their life in prison, full stop. What would you say to those people?

PACE: Well, I think that's unfortunate that there are people that hold that position. But what I try to do when thinking about that is I try to, you know, demonstrate that I am not that person. And that's why - and people that I encounter that have - in similar situations like myself, they feel a similar way, just demonstrating it through their actions. Let that speak louder than words.

SHAPIRO: John Pace is a reentry coordinator with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project. Thank you very much.

PACE: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.