After 49 Years Behind Bars, Juvenile Lifer Found Society Wasn't Prepared For His Release
Foster Tarver was 17 years old in 1968, when he served as an accomplice to a fatal bank robbery. The next year, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. At the time, Pennsylvania law mandated that Tarver receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
But in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people like Tarver, who are often referred to as “juvenile lifers,” must get a chance at release. Nationally, about 450 juvenile lifers have been released so far.
Tarver got out last June. But he didn’t find an apartment until February.
Shortly after he moved in, the walls were still bare. But he had finished moving in his furniture, practically all of it donated.
“Everything’s appreciated, in that I make do with it,” Tarver said softly as he scanned the living room, where a roomy armchair, a couple of stools and a milk crate formed a circle for sitting.
In contrast, Tarver said, he received little help from government programs meant to facilitate juvenile lifers’ reentry into society.
Upon his release, he recalled, he wanted to pursue a career in law, having worked for seven years in the prison law library. But the 68-year-old man said reentry caseworkers didn’t take his ambition seriously.
“I’m at that age [when] most people are retiring. That’s how society deals with you, right?” he said. “As you get to a certain age, they begin to, like, phase you out.”
Tarver said some caseworkers tried to push him into a warehouse job. But he decided to enroll in community college instead and now studies to become a paralegal.
Many juvenile lifers end up underemployed doing menial labor, according to Abd’Allah Lateef of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. A juvenile lifer himself, Lateef said reentrants are especially dependent on the support of family and members of the community.
This dynamic, he said, puts juvenile lifers at a distinct disadvantage.
“Children who have been disappeared from society at such a young and tender age have really been deprived from that process of socialization and social network development,” Lateef said.
Lateef, who lives in Philadelphia, added that government programs do not meet this need.
But Pennsylvania corrections secretary John Wetzel defends his state’s approach, saying his department developed a range of reentry services specifically for juvenile lifers after the Supreme Court struck down automatic life sentences without parole for minors in 2012. The decision that freed Tarver didn’t come until 2016, when the court held that its earlier decision applies retroactively, giving already-sentenced juvenile lifers like him a new path to release.
“We felt a lot of responsibility to try to figure out how we could set these individuals up for success, given the fact that they came in as children and they were getting out literally to a different world,” Wetzel said.
In any case, the secretary noted that in Pennsylvania – which previously incarcerated the most juvenile lifers in the country – only about 1 percent of the 184 juvenile lifers who have been released have returned to prison.
“Primarily men and women who got out were prepared to get out and were prepared to be good citizens,” Wetzel said. “But I think that the numbers would suggest that our approach was successful thus far.”
But Tarver said 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.
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 said, 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 remembered that, when he got out of prison 38 years later, he received the most help from other ex-offenders.
“So these are the people that understand exactly what you need,” Olds said.
And, Olds added, they stepped in when his family did not.
“Most of my family members were not born when I went away,” Olds said. “So they don’t have this emotional – like I was a picture on a wall, not a real person.”
Olds said it was by taking matters into own hands that he found people who were invested in his well-being, and could help.