Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Young and the Reckless

The Young and the Reckless

by Elizabeth S. Scott & Laurence Steinberg
The New York Times
Friday, November 13, 2009

ON Monday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that ask whether sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Those who hope the court will ban this sort of sentencing point to the 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons, in which the court abolished the juvenile death penalty. They believe that the logic the justices applied in Roper to exclude minors from capital punishment should extend to life without parole as well.

Those who hope the justices will retain life sentences for juveniles argue that “death is different,” and that the court should exercise restraint, as it typically does when reviewing non-capital sentencing decisions for fairness under the proportionality principle.

Certainly, death is different. But the sentence of life in prison without parole is also different from even lengthy conventional sentences; it is a judgment that an offender will never be fit to rejoin civil society, however long he lives. This punishment may be suitable for adults who have committed terrible crimes, but it is never a fair sentence for a juvenile, whose character is unformed and whose involvement in crime reflects the immature judgment of adolescence.

A crucial lesson of the Roper case is that the developmental differences between adolescents and adults are important under the Eighth Amendment, as they are in other areas of constitutional law. In deciding to end the juvenile death penalty, the court repeatedly emphasized the relative immaturity of minors, even at age 17, as compared to adults — a point that is well established in behavioral research and finds growing support in brain science.

Writing for the majority in Roper, Justice Anthony Kennedy observed that juveniles’ impulsivity, recklessness and susceptibility to peer pressure made them inherently less responsible than adults. Justice Kennedy also noted juveniles’ potential for rehabilitation, because their personality and character traits are less fixed than adults.

In the years since the Roper ruling, research on adolescent brain and behavioral development has provided additional support for Justice Kennedy’s observations. There is now a consensus among neuroscientists, for example, that brain regions and systems responsible for foresight, self-regulation, risk assessment and responsiveness to social influences continue to mature into young adulthood. This evidence that adolescents are psychologically and neurologically less mature than adults should be important in deciding how to punish their criminal acts.

In Monday’s oral argument, the justices did not question the proposition that juveniles generally are psychologically less mature than adults. The debate focused instead on whether the mitigating trait of immaturity justified a categorical exclusion of juveniles from the sentence of life without parole.

Some justices argued instead that age and maturity should be considered in sentencing on a case-by-case basis. But this approach was rejected by the court in Roper — and it should be rejected here as well. As Roper recognized, even psychological experts are unable to distinguish between the young person whose crime reflects transient immaturity and the rare juvenile offender who may deserve the harsh sentence of life without parole. If experts can’t reliably make this determination, then it seems unlikely that juries and judges would be able to do much better.

The two Florida offenders whose cases will be decided by the court differ in age and in their offenses: Terrance Graham was sentenced to life without parole for a probation violation involving a house break-in at age 17, while Joe Sullivan was convicted of sexual assault at age 13.

It is possible that the court will treat these two cases differently. But in both cases, the lower court decisions should be struck down. For a minor to be confined in prison for life with no possibility of ever having the opportunity to demonstrate that he should be allowed to rejoin society is an egregious violation of the Eighth Amendment, especially for a crime in which no life was lost.

Such a sentence offends “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” the court’s announced standard for reviewing state punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Indeed, in our opinion, life without parole is never a fair sentence for a juvenile, even in a murder case.

There is no question that teenagers who commit serious crimes should be held accountable and punished, and that society must be protected from young people who are violent and dangerous. But studies show that the vast majority of juveniles who commit crimes — even very serious crimes — grow up to be law-abiding adults, and that it is impossible to predict which juvenile offenders will become career criminals.

Absent an ability to do this, and in light of what science tells us about the capacity for adolescents to change, it makes no sense to lock up any young offender and throw away the key.

Elizabeth S. Scott, a professor of law at Columbia, and Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple, are co-authors of “Rethinking Juvenile Justice.”


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments About Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) Sentences

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the cases of Sullivan v. Florida, No. 08-7621 and Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412. In both cases juveniles received sentences of life in prison without parole (LWOP).

Their attorneys argued that such a sentence unfairly condemned adolescents to die in prison and rejected any hope that they could change and could be rehabilitated.

You can read or download the oral arguments that were held in both cases by visiting the following two links.  If you know a prisoner who was sentenced to LWOP when s/he was a juvenile please print a copy of the transcripts and share it with them.

Sullivan v. Florida, No. 08-7621 Oral Argument Transcript 11-9-09

Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412 Oral Argument Transcript 11-9-09

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Juvenile Life Without Parole: The Potential for Progress" by Nezua

Juvenile Life Without Parole: The Potential for Progress

By Nezua

The coming Supreme Court term may see the United States move closer to its ideals of justice, or remain stubbornly locked in last place in at least one area—how we treat the smallest and weakest among us. Of all nations in the world, the United States of America is the last to ban sentences that require children to die in prison for crimes committed while young. Additionally, aside from Somalia, the USA stands alone in refusing to ratify Article 37 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Were we to do so, the possibility of parole would have to be given to children.

On the 2008 campaign trail, when asked about the CRC, then-candidate Obama said, “It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land.” He went on to promise that “I will review this and other treaties and ensure that the United States resumes its global leadership in human rights.”

Two cases are currently before the Supreme Court that afford our nation the opportunity to right this wrong and join the modern world. Sullivan vs. Florida and Graham vs. Florida will require the Supreme Court to rule on whether life sentences for juveniles that preclude the possibility of parole (JLWOP) are, in fact, constitutional.

As a nation, we move forward bit by bit. At times we take large strides to correct a slow pace. The issue of Juvenile Life Without Parole is an area that now demands a second look. One day soon, the idea of sentencing children to die in prison without even the possibility to redeem themselves will seem as bizarre as those laws that barred women from voting.

In fact, it was only in 2005, in Roper vs. Simmons, that the Supreme Court finally ruled the juvenile death penalty was unconstitutional. In arguing, the text describes a paradigm that informs legal reasoning in US law and specifically the Eighth Amendment’s barring of cruel and unusual punishment. It does this by consulting “objective indicia of consensus,” or signs in society or practicing of law that certain punishments or rulings or situations are no longer deemed accepted by the social body. The court need not see a definite declaration of as much, it infers this from many indicators.

A simpler way to illustrate this dynamic would be to say given time, the human being grows and evolves. A society is nothing more than a collection of human beings, and as such, evolves. A wise law accounts for the progress a society is making by embodying its current morality or lean toward new mores.

We need only look to our recent past to see examples. What is reasonable at one time to a person, or a nation of people (e.g., child labor, women as property, right to own slaves) can later be understood to be (and have always been) unreasonable or unjust. In general, we forgive a society for being imperfect (as people are imperfect) though we demand it improve at all times.

All apparent indicators in our society today imply that people change over time. That the human condition is not sealed in childhood, but of a developing and transient state. We speak to the young often, reminding them they most likely will look back and see things very differently, such is the change that a human mind and heart travel on the path to adulthood. It makes sense that this understanding would be codified in the sentencing of minors.

Today, parole exists for adults. It is a given that a grown person can see the error of their ways and have changed over time, or simply grow to be something better than they were. Or at least merit a second chance. But aren’t children even more likely to change over time than an adult who has already grown through his or her most malleable and fluid phases of mental and emotional development? And who is more deserving of a second chance than a child? None of this is to say every child sentenced to life in prison would or should walk free. The possibility of parole is just that: possibility. The allowance that a person is not a static thing. A hope for a human being to hold on to while in the hell that prisons are. A reason for them to live, and live well.

To hold that juvenile life without parole sentences are just, one would also have to exclude children from this possibility of potential to change over time. To hold that juvenile life without parole sentences are fair, we also must consider those people—specifically young people—who break a law to be of a type of human unlike the perpetually law-abiding and thus subject to a separate morality. These types of notions on criminal nature was once prevalent in the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when doctors and scientists of the era went to great lengths to attempt a codification of forehead measurements or family histories to make a case for criminality being something that marked one apart from the rest of the species. It was a gross and unenlightened view that aided the concurrent eugenics practices of the day. Clearly we have moved beyond the thinking of those times.

Another troubling aspect of the lack of any possibility to redress a life sentence is how people of color are disproportionately affected by so many aspects of law, from who gets stopped more, searched more, and shot more, to sentencing. In the US, African American children are actually ten times more likely than white children to receive a life without parole sentence. In California, the ratio is even more striking, at an egregious 20 to 1. When it comes to Latinos, half of the inmates incarcerated in federal prison have no previous criminal record, are least likely to be both violent and nonviolent recidivists. At the same time, Latinos are less likely overall to be given parole or probation than non-Latinos! These facts all add up to a powerful and destructive form of institutionalized racism. Given we understand those iniquities in our justice system exist and have been documented, are we comfortable with a life sentence in prison for minors, without even the possibility of parole one day? Doesn’t this mechanism resemble a giant tax-payer-funded killing machine aimed at one part of the population?

Finally, what of those who are innocent of the crimes for which they have been accused, and wrongly convicted? A terrible nexus of race and law and injustice frame the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr, a Latino honor student wrongfully convicted at 15 years old of a murder and armed robbery that others have already plead guilty to being involved in. Paredes was convicted and given two life sentences on entirely circumstantial evidence in an one of the US’ top 25 most segregated towns by a nearly all-white police department, court, and jury. Parades’ innocence is maintained worldwide and an effort to free him has been enjoined by activists, authors and experts like world renowned wrongful convictions expert Paul Ciolino, as well as the National Lawyer’s Guild (NLG). Can we truly look at the horror that receiving such a sentence would be to an innocent person and yet insist it makes sense in 2009 to make the possibility of parole something one needs to grow into, like the right to drink? To offer it to adults, but to withhold it from children?

You can help push back against injustices like this. Please take a moment and sign the petition to show your support not only for Efrén’s release, but for the over 2,500 prisoners sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles. In addition to the myriad holes in the case against Efrén, in September of this year the Berrien County prosecuter who defended the county’s case against Paredes claiming police do not commit misconduct has had to retract those words. Corruption has been exposed in the Berrien county police department’s Narcotics unit, and according to David Robinson, a former Detroit police officer turned attorney, “Someone was asleep at the switch in terms of administrative responsibility to operate the police department.” In his estimate, police misbehavior has gone on “over a significant period of time.”

Surely any reasonable mind understands when humans come together and interact in systems guided by even the most noble intent, injustices will occur. As a principle in general, this is inarguable. To drag out a rather stale cliché and apologize for waking it, “that’s why they put erasers on pencils.” And sometimes this means leaving room not only for the mistakes of the convicted, but for the mistakes that the system—being but system of imperfect persons working together—will inevitably make.

Giving children convicted of life sentences the possibility of parole is simply what a modern society provides itself so that it may maintain the belief that it would never purposefully and unjustly put a child to death in a big, locked box.

May the Supreme Court rule the same way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Don't Give Up On the Kids" by R. Dwayne Betts

Don't Give Up On the Kids

Supreme Court should reject life without parole for juveniles, says one who knows the system

by R. Dwayne Betts
The Baltimore Sun
November 1, 2009

A life sentence begins with Rashid's name.

I can't walk away from the first time I looked into his 15-year-old eyes, the eyes of someone close to my age, and knew he was sentenced to die in prison. When I met Rashid, his voice still carried the cracks and high notes that signaled adolescence, and his smooth face had never felt a razor. The same signs that belied my youth belied his. We were at the Southampton Receiving Center in Virginia, waiting on a bus to take us to prison.

R. Dwayne Betts served nine years in prison for his role in a carjacking. During that time, he became a voracious reader  and writer. His first book, A Question of Freedom, is drawing critical praise.No fewer than a dozen of us were Rashid's age, all with peers at home waiting on driver's licenses, graduations and proms - while we waited for the morning that would lead us to a prison cell. Rashid's time was legend: three life sentences with no chance for parole. It meant he awoke each morning knowing he would one day flatline within arm's reach of a cell.

I looked at him, and the judge's voice echoed in my head: "Are you aware your charges carry a life sentence?" Rashid wasn't old enough to drive, vote or serve on a jury of his peers - but he was old enough to walk out of a courtroom with a sentence that ends in a casket. After I met Rashid, my nine-year sentence for carjacking seemed like a gift.

Five years after my own release from prison - and months after delivering a commencement speech at the University of Maryland's graduation, speaking moments before CIA Director Leon Panetta - I found myself on an American Bar Association panel with lawyers and psychologists. A woman in the audience asked me what I thought should be done to a child who commits the kinds of crimes that end with life without the possibility of parole; I misheard her question and kept thinking that she had asked what I would do or say if the victim had been my family member.

As I began to answer her question, I thought about Rashid, and about how I couldn't escape the nightmare of being in a closed cell. I thought about my relatives, and how in my family tree there were both victims of violence and perpetrators. I thought about the judge reminding me of the life sentence I faced. And then I asked myself: What would I want if the victim were my daughter, or my sister? In my head there were two horrors, and I realized that the horror of life in prison and everything it means doesn't make right the horror of crimes I can't begin to imagine.

I told the woman that the justice system was not created to respond the way a family member would. We ask our justice system to do more than just act on impulse. We ask it to stand for more than vengeance. A system that didn't believe in the rehabilitation of young people would have left Alan K. Simpson a statistic and not given him room to mature to the point where he could become a United States senator. Charles S. Dutton wouldn't be a renowned actor. Many nameless men and women who are productive members of our society would still be in prison cells.

On Nov. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, cases in which juveniles were sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. The court will decide whether such sentences are constitutional. I, along with a number of former juvenile offenders - including Mr. Simpson and Mr. Dutton - filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to give young offenders the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed later.

Sixteen years doesn't prepare you for much. Fifteen years prepares you for even less, and I remember what Rashid's eyes looked like the day he walked to my cell door asking who he should or shouldn't let be a friend to him. He was a boy in a jungle and I, only a year older, was playing at being a man. Fifteen years doesn't prepare you for prison, and it doesn't prepare you to understand just how lasting scars can be.

As teenagers, our lives were impulse and reaction. Our lives were filled with uncertainties and the insanity around us, and all we ever wanted people to know, after we'd walked out of a courtroom, was that we could be more than our crimes, one day - that rehabilitation is real. All we wanted was to believe that our lives could be more than a series of cell doors.

R. Dwayne Betts lives in Prince George's County and is the author of "A Question of Freedom." His e-mail is


Updated November 13, 2009

New CNN video about Dwayne Betts.  In "What Matters", Fredricka Whitfield reports on a former prison inmate, Dwayne Betts, and the positive changes he is making in his community.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Myths of Get-Tough Law" by Professor Jeffrey Fagan

Myths of Get-Tough Law

by Jeffrey Fagan
St. Petersburg Times
Monday, November 2, 2009

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is defending the state's life without possibility of parole sentences for 13- and 16-year-olds against constitutional attack. But this isn't the first time McCollum has made history in the politics of juvenile justice. As a member of Congress in the 1990s, he promised the United States a "coming storm" of superpredators as a result of a population surge of kids from fatherless homes.

His 1996 warning was a world-class mistake. Juvenile homicide arrests promptly dropped in the United States by half. Yet anyone who thinks that a catastrophic statistical error like a phony crime wave would slow down McCollum needs to think again. In his brief before the Supreme Court in Graham vs. Florida, a constitutional challenge to laws permitting life sentences without the possibility of parole for very young minors, the attorney general now asserts that Florida's 30 years of get-tough legislation are the reason juvenile crime rates have fallen since the mid 1990s.

But this month's claim for deterrence is as phony as last decade's crime scare.

After mentioning a wide variety of Florida legislation after 1980, McCollum's brief says "these deliberative and focused strategies worked: violent crime rates plummeted from their 1990s highs both nationwide and in Florida." The statistical case he presents for cause and effect is that "serious violent offenses committed by juveniles aged 12-17 declined 61 percent from 1993 to 2005 nationwide" while "the rate of juvenile crime in Florida fell 30 percent from 1994 to 2004."

On its face, McCollum's claim suggests that youth crime in Florida declined more slowly than it did elsewhere. This is an odd endorsement for the state's tough juvenile sentencing laws.

The next thing that is remarkable about the state's position is that it presents no evidence that sentencing policies produced fewer crimes in the Sunshine State or anywhere else. The post-1980 legislation in Florida that McCollum embraces was also in place when Florida homicide rates shot up in the late 1990s, but his brief makes no assumptions that the harsh laws were the cause of Florida's bad news in that decade. Why, then, assume that any decline that happens at any time after the new laws passed was evidence that the laws worked?

Indeed, the Florida brief provides evidence that the state's legislative frenzy may actually be slowing down efforts at crime control. By McCollum's own calculations, the 30 percent juvenile crime decline in Florida is only half the more than 60 percent drop in the rest of the country. If these statistics are genuine indications of the impact of legislation, the "deliberative and focused strategies" in Florida have caused the state's juvenile crime reduction to badly trail the national average during the same time period. Using McCollum's data the way he is trying to use them, the real question is what is Florida doing so badly that its crime trends are only half as good the rest of the country?

Of course, tracing aggregate crime trends over long periods with no controls for other influences on crime is a silly way to test the impact of a particular sentencing policy. Real evidence requires sensitive measurements of the specific provisions of a criminal punishment. In the case before the Supreme Court, the policy McCollum is defending is a law that allows young teens to be sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole after criminal convictions. The true test of the effectiveness of this kind of law is whether states that provide this eternal imprisonment for juveniles experience lower proportions of violent crime among very young offenders than states that do not allow juveniles to suffer life without parole.

Our search of FBI crime totals for the distinctive patterns that would happen if the prospect of life without parole scared off juveniles not deterred by standard life sentences comes up empty. We find no evidence that any of the get-tough laws such as Florida's law produced significant crime declines among young teenagers in Florida or anywhere else. The young groups that Florida locks up forever do not make up a smaller proportion of violent crime in Florida and the other life without parole states than in the states that don't use life without parole for juveniles. This is where the tell-tale fingerprints of life without parole deterrence would be visible, but it doesn't happen. As extra prevention, juvenile life without parole is useless.

In a way, McCollum should be relieved that our careful analysis shows the life without parole policy has no effect. Taking the statistics presented in his brief seriously would suggest that Florida's celebrated crackdowns were reducing the crime decline benefits that other states are enjoying. The only bad effects we can demonstrate from Florida's brief in the Graham case are on legal argument and statistical logic.

Jeffrey Fagan is a professor of law and public health and director of the Center for Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School. Franklin E. Zimring is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Supreme Court Should Apply Roper Reasoning to Upcoming Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Cases

Supreme Court Should Apply Roper Reasoning to Upcoming Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Cases

By Charles Ogletree

The United States Supreme Court will hold oral arguments on November 9 in two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, which will determine whether it is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to sentence an adolescent who committed a non-homicide offense to life in prison with no opportunity for release.

Petitioners Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham were both sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for offenses that did not involve homicide in Florida. Sullivan was 13 years old when he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his natural life in prison. Graham received life without parole for a parole violation at 17 years old. He was sentenced without a trial.

Sullivan and Graham present an opportunity for the Court to affirm the reasoning put forth in Roper v. Simmons, which struck down capital punishment for juveniles. Roper established what every parent knows and what science confirms: adolescents are fundamentally different from adults in maturity and judgment.

The extensive body of research on adolescent development proves that adolescents have not reached the level of mental or emotional development that allows adults to make mature decisions, think through consequences, and control their impulses. This same developmental immaturity also makes adolescents the strongest candidates for rehabilitation as they grow older.

In Roper, the Court asserted that these significant developmental differences have direct bearing on the culpability of adolescents. The Court ruled that their immature judgment, impulsive decision-making, vulnerability to peer pressure, and inherent potential for rehabilitation reduce culpability such that sentencing them to death violates the Eighth Amendment.

These principles should be applied to the constitutionality of juvenile life-without-parole sentencing. The same transient qualities of adolescence that the Court relied upon in Roper make it similarly inappropriate to subject a teenager to a permanent punishment of life in prison without parole. It is cruel and inaccurate, as the Court has recognized, to pass a final and irreversible judgment on a person whose character is still forming and undergoing significant changes.

Every state acknowledges this relative immaturity of adolescents through civil laws mandating their differential treatment. States restrict adolescents from a wide range of activities that require more mature judgment, such as voting, driving, and consenting to sexual activity. In Florida, the State even restricts the age at which adolescents are allowed to get tattoos, operate golf carts, or attend professional boxing matches. Yet when it comes to criminal sanctions - such as those imposed on Sullivan and Graham - the State disregards this reasoning that young people are indeed categorically different.

The extreme rarity of the punishment shows that it is widely rejected by American society. Only six states are known to imprison juveniles for life without parole in non-homicide offenses. It has been eighteen years since any state sentenced a 13 year old to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. Sullivan is one of only two people in the entire country serving such a sentence. The total number of 13 and 14 year olds sentenced to life without parole for any offense over the last thirty years is 73. Florida is the only state nationwide with a first-time juvenile offender serving life without parole for armed burglary (Graham's offense). This kind of national repudiation has been recognized by the Court as a characteristic of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. It should similarly be applied here.

Although not at issue before the Court, there is an appallingly disturbing component to these juvenile life-without-parole cases. Adolescents subjected to this punishment are disproportionately children of color. In fact, every single young person sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense is a racial minority.

It is my hope that the Court follows its logic in Roper and acknowledges that these punishments must be tempered by an understanding that young people are categorically different in maturity and culpability.

Life-without-parole sentences were designed to deal with the most dangerous offenders who are beyond the pale of rehabilitation. Science, the Court's own precedents, and common sense all teach us that adolescents cannot reliably be categorized among the worst adult offenders. The Court ought to do away with this cruel and inappropriate sentence.

Charles Ogletree is Jesse Climenko Professor of Law & Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Ogletree submitted an Amicus brief in support of Petitioners with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Giving Child Offenders a Chance" by Linda L. White

Giving child offenders a chance

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I was deeply moved by former senator Alan K. Simpson's Oct. 23 Washington Forum commentary, "A sentence too cruel for children," although I might be an unexpected person to be so moved. Twenty-three years ago, my daughter, then pregnant, was murdered by two 15-year-old boys. But in the years since her death, I have come to believe that sentencing teenagers to life in prison without the possibility of parole does not serve victims, offenders or public safety.

There is no reason to deny child offenders the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed after they have served a significant amount of time to see whether they have changed and matured. Only those who have demonstrated their growth and proved they are rehabilitated would be considered for parole. As Mr. Simpson's personal story shows, the potential for growth is enormous.

My family experienced unimaginable loss, but I still believe that young people -- even those who have done terrible things -- can be reformed. A permanent sentence should not be imposed on children whose characters are still forming.

And thank you to the senator for his candor in writing on this issue. His courage has served to strengthen my resolve to keep speaking out on this important matter.

Linda L. White, Magnolia, Tex.

The writer was among the signers of a friend-of-the-court brief in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, the two Supreme Court cases regarding the sentencing of juveniles.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"A Sentence Too Cruel for Children" by Alan Simpson

A Sentence Too Cruel for Children

by Alan Simpson
The Miami Herald
Friday, October 23, 2009

Rather than serving in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years, or having so many other wonderful life experiences, I could have served a longer sentence in prison for some of the stupid, reckless things I did as a teenager. I am grateful to have gotten a second chance -- and I believe our society should make a sustained investment in offering second chances to our youth.

When I was a teen, we rode aimlessly around town, shot things up, started fires and generally raised hell. It was only dumb luck that we never really hurt anyone. At 17, I was caught destroying federal property and was put on probation. For two years, my probation officer visited me and my friends at home, in the pool hall, at school and on the basketball court. He was a wonderful guy who listened and really cared. I did pretty well on probation. At 21, though, I got into a fight in a tough part of town and ended up in jail for hitting a police officer.

I spent only one night in jail, but that was enough. I remember thinking, ``I don't need too much more of this.''

I had a chance to turn my life around, and I took it. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether other young people get that same chance.

On Nov. 9, the court will hold oral argument in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, two cases that will determine whether it is constitutional to sentence a teenager to life in prison without parole for a crime that did not involve the taking of a life. There is a simple reason the criminal justice system should treat juveniles and adults differently: Kids are a helluva lot dumber than adults. They do stupid things -- as I did -- and some even commit serious crimes, but youths don't really ever think through the consequences. It's for this reason that every state restricts children from such consequential actions as voting, serving on juries, purchasing alcohol or marrying without parental consent.

The Supreme Court recognized the differences between teenagers and adults when it held a few years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on defendants younger than 18. Locking up a youth for the rest of his life, with no hope for parole, is surely unconstitutional for the same reasons. The person you are at 13 or 17 is not the person you are at 30, 40 or 50. Everyone old enough to look back on his or her teenage years knows this.

Peer pressure is a huge part of youth behavior, whether one grows up in Washington, D.C., or Cody, Wyo. The guys will say, ``Go get the gun. We'll pick up just enough money for tonight.'' And almost unthinkingly, you'll do it. There is simply no way to know at the time of sentencing whether a young person will turn out ``good'' or ``bad.'' The only option is to bring him or her before a parole board -- after some number of years -- and give the person the chance to declare, ``I'm a different person today'' -- and then prove it.

Parole boards can examine how youth offenders spent their time in prison. Did they read books or work in the library? Did they make furniture? Get a college degree? Those are critical questions for review.
If at that review a parole board finds out that a miscreant hasn't changed, then keep him or her in prison. But some juvenile offenders make real efforts while they are in jail, and we should make honest adjustments for them.

We all know youths who have changed for the better. When I was a lawyer in Cody, the court sometimes appointed me to represent juvenile offenders, and parents who knew of my history often asked for help with their children. I once handled the case of an 18-year-old who stole a car and drove it to Seattle. I later hired him as chief of staff for my Senate office, and he turned out to be one of the most able of the people I put in that job.

I was lucky that the bullets I stole from a hardware store as a teenager and fired from my .22-caliber rifle never struck anyone. I was fortunate that the fires I set never hurt anyone. I heard my wake-up call and listened -- and I went on to have many opportunities to serve my country and my community.

When a young person is sent ``up the river,'' we need to remember that all rivers can change course.

Alan Simpson, a Republican, was a U.S. senator from Wyoming from 1977 to 1996. He is among former juvenile offenders who have submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the petitioners in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Second Chances" by Raphael B. Johnson

Second Chances

by Raphael B. Johnson
October 16, 2009

At 17 I was captain of my high-school football team and on my way to college. But in November 1992 I went to a birthday party with friends. We were tussling around, and the chaperones threw us out. One of them knocked me to the ground, and I felt ashamed and angry. My friend had a gun in his car. I got it, came back, and fired three shots, killing one of the chaperones. I was convicted of murder and given 10 to 25 years in prison. grew up in an area known for gun violence and drugs. Like a lot of boys, I looked up to tough men who could fight and had been in prison. My first arrest came when I was 12: I stole my grandmother's gun and took it to school. At 14 I was sent to a boys' home. I studied hard and won a full scholarship to attend the University of Detroit high school. I excelled there, but my thinking was twisted. I didn't know how to manage my anger. As a result, a man lost his life the night of that party.

On the day I was to begin Marygrove College, I started a prison term instead. I was 18 and had hope: I could be paroled when I was still a relatively young man. I spent six of my 12 years in prison in solitary confinement. I promised myself I would read 1,000 books. I read 1,300. I became certified as a carpenter, plumber, electrician, and paralegal.

I was released from prison in 2004 after my third parole hearing. I received bachelor's and master's degrees from University of Detroit Mercy. I started a motivational-speaking and fitness-training company. As a community-reintegration coordinator, I help other ex-offenders start anew. I'm proof that people, especially teens, can't be judged by the worst thing they ever did.

There are countless examples of former juvenile offenders like myself who, given the opportunity to be contributing members of society, have done great things. Former senator Alan Simpson committed a serious federal offense as a juvenile (destroying government property) but became a GOP leader. Terry Ray was a violent repeat offender but became an assistant U.S. attorney. Charles Dutton was convicted of manslaughter at 17 but became a respected actor and director. Dozens of studies show that overwhelming majorities of juvenile offenders mature out of committing crimes.

Next month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, two cases that will decide if it's constitutional to sentence teens to life in prison without parole. The court should give people like me a reason to keep improving themselves. Individuals who have committed crimes as teens should be allowed to have their sentences reviewed. Teenagers change. Adolescents, even more than adults, have enormous capacity for redemption. I know.

Johnson recently won a primary election for the Detroit city council.


Below is Raphael's acceptance speech for being awarded Community Organizer of the Year at the 2008 Steve Harvey Hoodie Awards. The Hoodie Awards honors local business establishments, community leaders, churches and high schools nation wide for their contributions and excellence in the community. The event was held on September 20, 2008 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, NV.

Monday, September 28, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court to Consider Juvenile 'Lifers'

by David G. Savage

September 28, 2009

Reporting from Washington - Joe Sullivan was 13 years old when he and two older boys broke into a home, where they robbed and raped an elderly woman. After a one-day trial in 1989, Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.

Terrance Graham was 16 when he and two others robbed a restaurant. When he was arrested again a year later for a home break-in, a Florida judge said he was incorrigible. In 2005, Graham received a life term with no parole.

The two young convicts represent an American phenomenon, one the Supreme Court is set to reconsider in the fall term that opens Oct. 5. At issue is whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to imprison a minor until he or she dies when the crime does not involve murder.

According to Amnesty International, "The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles."

Nearly all of the estimated 2,500 U.S. prisoners serving life terms for juvenile crimes, the group said, were guilty either of murder or of participating in a crime that led to a homicide. But 109 inmates are serving life sentences for other crimes committed when they were younger than 18.

Sullivan's and Graham's lawyers do not claim the young men deserve to go free.

"We are not asking for Mr. Graham to be released any time soon," attorney Bryan Gowdy said. "We are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a sentence of life without parole for these crimes. It would be entirely different if Mr. Graham had a meaningful opportunity for parole."

The question will be an early test of whether Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, will align herself with the court's tough-on-crime conservatives or join with its liberals to strike down prison policies perceived as going too far.

Sullivan’s and Graham’s cases will be heard in November. Many lawyers and prosecutors said that until the Supreme Court agreed this year to take up the issue, they were unaware of juveniles receiving such sentences.

Sullivan, now 33, has been in prison for 20 years. The Florida appeals court and the state Supreme Court refused to review his sentence. When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum said the appeal should be dismissed on the grounds that it was too late to raise the issue of cruel and unusual punishment.

A lawyer for Graham has called his client's life sentence freakish and unfair. A second youth who participated in the restaurant robbery hit an employee with a club. He was later arrested for robbing a gas station and sentenced to three years in prison. He has since been released.

Florida leads the nation in sending teenagers to prison for life with no possible parole for crimes such as burglary, assault or rape. It has at least 77 such inmates. California and six other states also have at least one.

"This is a hidden group. They don't get a lot of attention because there was no homicide," said Paolo Annino, a law professor at Florida State University who has compiled national data on these prisoners.

California officials said they were unaware of having four such inmates until they checked their database at Annino's request. Two years ago, California joined many other states in prohibiting the sentencing of young offenders to life in prison.

But that measure did not affect inmates who had already been sentenced.

Annino and others point to two trends in the 1980s that led to juveniles serving life terms. First was the national move to abolish parole, reflecting fears that violent criminals could not be safely released. Second was the increased prosecution of young criminals as adults.

In defense of its life-in-prison policy, Florida's lawyers have pointed to several deadly attacks on European visitors carried out by young criminals.

These violent incidents were "threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry," Florida's lawyers said in the opening paragraph of their brief to the Supreme Court in the Graham case.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Amicus Briefs in Pending Juvenile Life Without Parole U.S. Supreme Court Cases

The following are merit briefs and all the amicus briefs that were filed in the cases Graham v. Florida, Docket No. 08-7412 and Sullivan v. Florida, Docket No. 08-7621, currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Graham case the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the question, "Whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile's commission of a non-homicide."

In the Sullivan case the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the following two questions, "Joe Sullivan is serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense committed when he was thirteen years old. Nationwide, only one other thirteen-year-old child has received a life-without-parole sentence for a non-homicide. The questions presented are:

1. Does imposition of a life-without-parole sentence on a thirteen-year-old for a non-homicide violate the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, where the freakishly rare imposition of such a sentence reflects a national consensus on the reduced criminal culpability of children?

2. Given the extreme rarity of a life imprisonment without parole sentence imposed on a 13-year-old child for a non-homicide and the unavailability of substantive review in any other federal court, should this Court grant review of a recently evolved Eighth Amendment claim where the state court has refused to do so?"

Graham v. Florida, Docket No. 08-7412

Merit briefs
Amicus briefs

Sullivan v. Florida Docket No. 08-7621

Merit briefs

Amicus briefs

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mental Health America Adopts Policy Opposing Life Sentences Without Parole For Juveniles


Mental Health America Adopts Policy Opposing Life Sentences Without Parole For Juveniles

Contact: Steve Vetzner, (703) 797-2588 or

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (September 16, 2009)-Mental Health America has adopted a strong policy opposing sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, calling such punishment "inconsistent with any of the purposes which ordinarily guide sentencing."

The policy was adopted by Mental Health America's Board of Directors at its September meeting. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment this term.

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. In 42 states and under federal law, children who are too young to legally buy cigarettes are being tried for crimes as adults and if convicted can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

There are currently at least 2,500 youthful offenders serving life without parole in U.S. prisons. Nationally, 59 percent of these individuals received their sentences for their first ever criminal conviction. Sixteen percent were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes, and 26% were sentenced under a felony murder charge where their offense did not involved carrying a weapon or pulling a trigger.

"Sentencing, including sentencing to imprisonment, has long been guided by four considerations: deterrence, retribution, incapacitation and rehabilitation. None of these purposes are served by sentencing juveniles to life without parole," the policy position states.

"Victims of child abuse and neglect are over-represented among incarcerated juveniles, including those serving life without parole. Studies of this population also consistently demonstrate a high incidence of mental health and substance use disorders, serious brain injuries, and learning disabilities. In many instances, these juveniles have not received adequate diagnostic assessments or interventions."

The policy also notes that such sentences violate international law and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world, except Somalia and the United States.

Mental Health America is also encouraging its more than 300 affiliates to work to repeal laws in those states which permit a sentence of life without parole. And it urges mental health advocates, professionals and other service providers work to ensure that juveniles are provided with appropriate services while incarcerated whose goal is to identify and ameliorate those problems which may have led to the crime and which need to be addressed before release will be safe and appropriate.

Celebrating 100 years of mental health education and advocacy, Mental Health America is the country's leading nonprofit dedicated to helping all people live mentally healthier lives. With our more than 300 affiliates nationwide, we represent a growing movement of Americans who promote mental wellness for the health and well-being of the nation-every day and in times of crisis. In 2009, we are marking a century of achievement with a year-long Centennial Observance: "Celebrating the Legacy, Forging the Future."



Monday, September 14, 2009

Mich. to Rethink Teen Life Sentence

House committee considers bills amid 'emotional testimony'

by Karen Bouffard
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Monday, September 14, 2009

Lansing -- Michigan is among a growing number of states reconsidering whether juveniles should be sentenced to life behind bars with no chance of parole.

The trend has been spurred by scientific evidence that shows teens' brains are not fully developed, leaving them vulnerable to impulsive actions and poor choices.

Teens can be sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole in most states. But Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas have outlawed such sentences.

The Michigan House Judiciary Committee is considering bills that would allow those serving such sentences to be considered for parole, or ban such sentences. Two hearings have been held so far, and the committee plans to propose a package of bills addressing the issue later this fall, according to Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, the committee chairman.

"It was very emotional testimony -- we had victims' families testify, prosecutors testify, relatives of children in prison testify," Meadows said.

Citing scientific evidence about teens' brain development, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the sentencing of people to death for crimes they commit before age 18 is unconstitutional.

Child advocates have seized upon that ruling as a basis to challenge mandatory life sentences for teens, and the Supreme Court is poised to hear two such cases in November.

That argument doesn't hold water with Charles D. Stimson, a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.--based conservative think tank that published in August the book "Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens."

According to Stimson, the Supreme Court made its ruling partly because life sentences without parole provide a sufficient consequence for the most heinous crimes committed by teens. Eliminating such sentences would leave courts with few options for dealing with society's most dangerous teen criminals.

"We do have a juvenile crime problem in the U.S. that is much worse than in the rest of the world," Stimson said. "It's a matter for the states to decide."


Teen Lifers a Burden for State's Prisons

Mich. ranks second in number of young killers behind bars

by Karen Bouffard
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Monday, September 14, 2009

Lansing-- Michigan's high number of teens sentenced to life in prison without parole has child advocates questioning laws that give judges that option.

Behind bars are 346 teens who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed between the ages of 14 and 17, according to the Department of Corrections.

A study by the University of Texas says Michigan has the second most such inmates in the country. The report also says Michigan is among the harshest in the way it treats teens accused of major crimes.

Michigan's laws are unusual in that they allow juvenile judges to impose adult penalties on children too young to be transferred to adult criminal court, according to the report by the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs.

"Children simply aren't as culpable as adults because their brains aren't fully developed yet, and they are much more capable of rehabilitation," said Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas and principal investigator of the study.

The number of teens sentenced to life in Michigan could climb following a recent rash of crimes in Metro Detroit that police say were committed by teens. In one of the more high-profile incidents, 12-year-old Demarco Harris is charged with shooting a 24-year-old woman to death as she sat in her car on West Outer Drive. His preliminary exam is set for Sept. 25.

Harris was charged as a juvenile, but with "adult designation" -- meaning Judge Leslie Kim Smith, who will oversee his trial in Wayne County Juvenile Court, has wide discretion when it comes to sentencing. If Harris is found guilty, he can be charged as a juvenile or an adult, or the judge can opt to review his conduct at age 19 and resentence him as an adult or juvenile.

If sentenced as an adult, Harris could face life in prison with no chance for parole.

The option to sentence juveniles as adults is "harsh" treatment, the study's authors said. Michigan's guidelines -- unlike most states' -- require a child who is convicted as an adult of first-degree murder to receive the same sentence as an adult: mandatory life in prison without parole.

The report, released this summer, gave Michigan the dubious distinction, along with three other states -- Pennsylvania, Florida and South Carolina -- of having children most likely to end up in adult prisons, because of mandatory sentencing laws and the ease of transferring juveniles into the adult system or imposing adult sentences.

One of the most notorious cases of a juvenile being prosecuted as an adult was that of Nathaniel Abraham of Pontiac, who was 11 in 1997 when he fatally shot Ronnie Greene Jr.

Abraham was convicted of murder as an adult at age 13 under a new sentencing law that allowed the judge to sentence him as an adult or a juvenile. Judge Eugene Athur Moore sentenced him to eight years in a juvenile facility.

Abraham, now 22, was sentenced in January to four to 20 years for drug trafficking.

'Cheapens value of life'

Advocates argue young teen criminals should get a second chance, as Abraham did. But many prosecutors and victims' relatives say some youths' crimes are so horrific that justice can be served only by a life sentence.

Greg King would agree. His daughter, 18-year-old Michigan State University student Karen Ann King, was at home in Saginaw visiting her parents on Jan. 3, 1997, when she was carjacked, kidnapped, raped, tortured and finally strangled by 15-year-old Shytour Williams and his cousin August McKinley Williams, 18, a prison parolee. Both were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

"Thinking (of freeing them) cheapens the value of my daughter's life," said Greg King. "The murderers get to see their families, talk to their families, receive gifts from their families -- and now we want to let them go. Myself and my family can only visit my daughter Karen at her gravesite."

The Texas study raises policy questions as Michigan is moving to deplete its prison population to reduce costs.

As Michigan faces a $2.8 million deficit for the budget year starting Oct. 1, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has shut prisons and paroled about 3,000 more prisoners than usual to shave $120 million in costs. Granholm has commuted more prison sentences than any other governor since at least 1969 -- 100 in less than seven years, compared with 35 during Gov. John Engler's 12 years in office.

The question becomes 'why'

After 29 years in prison, Henry Hill Jr., 45, claims he has been rehabilitated by the state Department of Corrections. He got life without parole for a shooting in Saginaw's Veterans Memorial Park in 1980, when he was 16.

Though a court-appointed psychologist found Hill to have the educational level of a third-grader when he entered the system, he attained his GED, earned certificates in several skilled trades and has finished several college classes. At Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, which houses 770 adults and 440 youthful offenders in separate wings, he tries to act as a mentor for teenage felons.

Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart said some of those housed at her facility, who as teens were sentenced to life, could safely be released back into the community.

"Absolutely," she said. "The question becomes: Are you scared of them, or are you mad at them? When we're locking up people because we're mad at them, we're compromising our resources."

Mike Thomas, the prosecuting attorney in Saginaw County, said the focus should not be on whether kids should be jailed with adult sentences, but rather why kids are committing the crimes.

"To me, that's much more important to deal with than whether a teen should get life without parole for killing," said Thomas, whose county has put more teens behind bars with no chance of parole than any other in the state.

"The question the Legislature should be dealing with is why are these kids doing this stuff," he said.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Michigan Juvenile Justice Collaborative Legislative Day on September 22, 2009

Far too many of Michigan's most vulnerable children - particularly those affected by trauma, abuse, neglect, mental illness and disability - either drift into or are referred into a juvenile justice system that is inappropriate and ill equipped to serve their needs.

The Michigan Juvenile Justice Collaborative will work to advance policies and practices that prevent delinquency, promote rehabilitation, and support transitional services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system and will raise awareness about the need for best practices that are equitable and just.

Click here to register for the MJJC Legislative Day on September 22!

Join The Future of Children Executive Director Elisabeth Donahue to learn what top scholars are saying about juvenile justice reform. Donahue will share findings from the Fall 2009 issue of The Future of Children, Juvenile Justice, edited by expert Laurence Steinberg with contributions from nine respected academics in this field. This well-received volume examines juvenile justice policies and practices with the goal of promoting reforms that are 1) based on solid evidence and 2) acknowledge that adolescents differ from adults in ways that policy ought to take into account.

The volume and its companion brief, “Keeping Adolescents out of Prison,” conclude that the “get-tough” reforms implemented during the past two decades have been both unnecessarily costly and of questionable effectiveness, and offer alternatives – policies that have not only been proven effective, but save taxpayer dollars as well.
  • Prevention - Provide families and communities with the resources to properly care for and educate Michgan's children, particularly those who have experienced abuse and neglect and those with special needs.
  • Intervention - Address the needs of youth in the justice system in a way that is developmentally-appropriate, strength-based, and individualized to meet the unique needs of each child.
  • Reintegration - Assist youth who are transitioning from out-of-home placement back to their home communities by establishing necessary supports for housing, education, employment and other services.
  • Equity - Draw attention to the disproportionate number of youth of color within the juvenile justice system and pursue strategies to reduce disproportionality and ensure equitable access to resources and culturally competent services.
  • Outreach and Education - Participate in opportunities to educate juvenile justice and child welfare stakeholders about emerging research and best practices.