Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The Michigan Messenger
2/24/09 7:16 AM
Michigan’s prison system holds 346 inmates who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children. As the state struggles with a $1.5 billion deficit and a prison system that eats up 20 percent of the budget, a bill to end the controversial practice of sending minors to prison for life may gain momentum in the state Legislature.
The United States is the only nation that allows life without parole for juvenile offenders and, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, Michigan ranks third among states for number of people serving such sentences.
Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, an advocate for banning mandatory life sentences for children, explained that Michigan’s large number of juvenile lifers is a result of legislation enacted in the 1980s during a period of fear about a wave of juvenile crime.
“People were worried about ‘super predators,’” she said. “States around the country started really cracking down, with laws that were intended to get the worst of the worst — kids so far gone that there is nothing that can help them.”
But the fear was a scare tactic, Weisberg said. “In fact the juvenile crime wave was temporary and has gone down.”
In a third of the cases in which Michigan juveniles are sentenced to life without parole, she said, the crime is their first offense.
But tough-on-crime laws beginning in 1988 mandated life without parole sentences for certain crimes, and allowed children as young as 14 to be tried as adult without a special hearing.
Legislation introduced this month by state Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, would ban life without parole for juveniles. It would also allow those already serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles to apply for parole after a portion of their sentence is served.
“It is inhumane and it is inappropriate to take children before their brains are fully developed and subject them to same sentence that adults would get,” Brater said. “Many of them were sentenced along with an adult defender who got a lesser sentence and many of these youth were victims of abuse or neglect in their homes or are people with mental illness or disability.”
In addition to the ethical problems, she said, incarcerating young people for their full lives represents a significant expenditure for taxpayers and this money could probably do more to prevent crime if spent earlier in life on services like pre-school.
It costs at least $30,000 per year to keep an inmate in the state prison system, according to the Department of Corrections. With 346 mostly still-young lifers serving time for juvenile crime, the current law that prohibits rehabilitation and release will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several decades.
Brater, who has introduced this same legislation in the last two legislative session, said that she feels it has developed some momentum. Last year the House held a hearing on the legislation and then passed it with strong bipartisan support.
Gary Walker is president of the Michigan Prosecutors Association, a group that has historically opposed bills to end mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
The legislation proposed by Brater could represent a “monumental change in terms” for the Michigan criminal justice system, Walker said, because the general age of criminal responsibility is 17 in Michigan and a large number of criminal offences are committed by people between 17 and 18 years old.
In Michigan, as in 13 other states, people who are 17 years old are considered adults by the criminal justice system, Walker said. Prosecutors have the option of charging younger offenders as juveniles, Walker said, and generally charge them as adults only in cases involving “horrific” crimes.
The legislation to end juvenile life without parole would in effect change the age of criminal responsibility to 18, Walker said.
“There is no real magic to the age of responsibility,” he said. Some people as young as 16 are fully aware of the meaning of their actions and decades ago the age of majority was 21.
“If we were to be starting out now, 18 may well be an appropriate choice.”
Walker said that Michigan prosecutors are open to working the legislation’s supporters.
“We are always willing to discuss legislation and we try to shape it in a way that is appropriate to Michigan citizens,” he said. “I want to see the kids in caps and gowns, not in jump suits.”
While Brater’s legislation has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, it remains unclear whether the bill will be considered further.
Monday, February 9, 2009
The Huffington Post
February 9, 2009
Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid and poor children of color are the fodder. It is time to sound a loud alarm about this threat to American unity and community, act to stop the growing criminalization of children at younger and younger ages, and tackle the unjust treatment of minority youths and adults in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems with urgency and persistence. The failure to act now will reverse the hard-earned racial and social progress for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others died and sacrificed. We must all call for investment in all children from birth through their successful transition to adulthood, remembering Frederick Douglass's correct observation that "it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
So many poor babies in rich America enter the world with multiple strikes against them: born without prenatal care, at low birthweight, and to a teen, poor, and poorly educated single mother and absent father. At crucial points in their development after birth until adulthood, more risks pile on, making a successful transition to productive adulthood significantly less likely and involvement in the criminal justice system significantly more likely. As Black children are more than three times as likely as White children to be poor, and are four times as likely to live in extreme poverty, a poor Black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and is almost six times as likely as a White boy to be incarcerated for a drug offense.
The past continues to strangle the present and the future. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to become incarcerated. Black children are nearly nine times and Latino children are three times as likely as White children to have an incarcerated parent. Blacks constitute one-third and Latinos one-fifth of the prisoners in America, and 1 in 3 Black men, 20 to 29 years old, is under correctional supervision or control. Of the 2.3 million in jail or prison, 64 percent are minority. Of the 4.2 million persons on probation, 45 percent are minority; of the 800,000 on parole, 59 percent are minority. Inequitable drug sentencing policies including mandatory minimums have greatly escalated the incarceration of minority adults and youths.
Child poverty and neglect, racial disparities in systems that serve children, and the pipeline to prison are not acts of God. They are America's immoral political and economic choices that can and must be changed with strong political, corporate and community leadership.
No single sector or group can solve these child- and nation-threatening crises alone but all of us can together. Leaders must call us to the table and use their bully pulpits to replace our current paradigm of punishment as a first resort with a paradigm of prevention and early intervention. That will save lives, save families, save taxpayer money, and save our nation's aspiration to be a fair society. Health and mental health care and quality education cost far less than prisons.
If called to account today, America would not pass the test of the prophets, the Gospels, and all great faiths. Christians who profess to believe that God entered human history as a poor vulnerable baby, and that each man, woman and child is created in God's own image, need to act on that faith. The Jewish Midrash says God agreed to give the people of Israel the Torah only after they offered their children as guarantors, deeming neither their prophets nor elders sufficient. It is time to heed the prophets' call for justice for the orphans and the weak.
America's Declaration of Independence says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...." After more than two centuries, it is time to make those truths evident in the lives of poor children of color and to close our intolerable national hypocrisy gap. America's sixth child is waiting for all of us to welcome him or her to the table in our rich land and show the world whether democratic capitalism is an oxymoron or whether it can work. Our national creed demands it. All great faiths demand it. Common sense and self-interest require it. And our moral redemption and credibility in the world we seek to lead compels it.
Ending child poverty is not only an urgent moral necessity, it is economically beneficial. Dr. Robert M. Solow, M.I.T. Nobel Laureate in Economics, wrote in Wasting America's Future that "ending child poverty is, at the very least, highly affordable" and would be a boost to the economy. A healthy Social Security and Medicare system for our increasing elderly population need as many productive workers as possible to support them. We can ill afford to let millions of our children grow up poor, in poor health, uneducated, and as dependent rather than productive citizens.
What then can leaders do to help build the spiritual and political will needed to help our nation pass the test of the God of history and better prepare for America's future? What steps can you take to heed Dr. King's warning not to let our wealth become our destruction but our salvation by helping the poor Lazaruses languishing at our closed gates? How can our nation use its blessings to bless all the children entrusted to our care and rekindle America's dimming dream?
As President Obama and Congress contemplate ways to stimulate our economy, let them begin by investing in a healthy, fair, head, and safe start for every American child and measures to ensure their successful transition to college and productive adulthood.
Learn more about CDF's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Campaign.
Marian Wright Edelman, whose latest book is The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to www.childrensdefense.org.
Supporters of the movement to abolish juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences are highly encouraged to attend the the March 5, 2009 event. Shelli Weisberg, Legislative Director, ACLU of Michigan, will be speaking at this event about the subject of JLWOP sentences.
As additional information is made available about these events we will include it in this post to share with everyone.
Thursday, February 12th
The School to Prison Pipeline
Room 911 Cooley Center
Thomas M. Cooley Law School
300 S. Capitol Ave.
Thursday, February 26th
Christiancy Room-Temple Building
Thomas M. Cooley Law School
217 S. Capitol Ave.
Thursday, March 5th
Juvenile Life Without Parole
Christiancy Room-Temple Building
Thomas M. Cooley Law School
217 S. Capitol Ave.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
PBS ran a story this week called Juvenile Life Without Parole and it's worth a look. The Supreme Court has rejected the death penalty for juvenile offenders, but 44 states still can sentence them to life without parole. In my opinion, that's a tragedy, and I think our entire society will be held accountable if we don't move away from this trend.
One of the cornerstones of some political conservatives' opposition to affirmative action is the principle of "equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcomes." In other words, leveling the playing field is good, but quotas are bad. In principle, I agree with this. But if you've hung out with the urban poor for any length of time, you know that equality of opportunity is a myth. There are several reasons why:
- There is a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. There is no such thing as equality of public education in lower income communities... rich school districts get the best teachers and the most money. Urban kids have figured this out and many of them feel like second class citizens. The kids who do want to be honest see drug dealers living the "good life" while they're working for 7 bucks an hour (if they can actually get a job). I've had to talk Christian teenagers out of selling drugs when some of the higher level dealers tried to recruit them.
- Materialism is a problem with the poor, too. Cable TV and cell phones are considered essentials today, not luxuries. Wealth is an idol, even among many people who aren't wealthy. But this attitude is instilled in kids from a young age, learned by example and reinforced by popular music and culture. So we're dealing with a mindset, a stronghold if you will, often a spiritual one. Those aren't easily brought down with a conversation or two.
- Fatherlessness is an epidemic in urban communities. At one point in youth ministry, I counted four kids out of 50 who had dads in the home, and three of those guys were brothers! I understand that there are single moms out there who are doing the best they can, and I applaud them, but the fact is, children (especially boys) need fathers.
While we all have some sense of right and wrong (Scripture confirms this), that sense can become warped and often hasn't been fully developed among at-risk youth. I've dealt with "good kids" who had never even been challenged on "little transgressions" like littering or sneaking food out of a buffet restaurant. When I've pointed these problems out, I've met resistance, but guess what? Things began to change. Not overnight, but light has a way of overcoming darkness if you keep shining it. If nothing else, horizons expand. I've even had kids who aren't Christian tell me that by hanging out at church, they find they can't steal anymore because their consciences start getting to them.
I can't give you a statistic, but I'll go out on a limb and say that most juvenile crimes are probably committed by disadvantaged teenagers. How can we as a society lock them up, throw away the key and offer no chance for redemption? We say we treat everyone fairly, but when our whole economic system is stacked against poor minority kids, how do we in good conscience punish them like we would punish a 40 year-old?
James 2:13 says that "judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment." This scripture is, not coincidentally, immediately after an admonition not to show favoritism to the rich. In a democratic society, I believe God holds us accountable as a nation for structures that screw the poor and perpetuate poverty. When we sit in the suburbs, protect our own kids and allow them to benefit from better schools while inner city kids remain caught in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness, I think God is going to deal with us. With some of the felony murder laws, kids can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or be influenced by the wrong adult and end up doing life in prison. That grieves me.
I'm not advocating a system that allows minors to commit crimes without any personal cost. What I am advocating is a system that administers justice with mercy, especially for young people who, for whatever reason, are dealing with obstacles that many of us in middle class America couldn't even imagine. Sure, there's always the person who, through determination, overcomes these obstacles and breaks the cycle. But those are few and far between. And that desire to overcome is often instilled by strong parents. What if there isn't anyone there to instill that attitude?
If you want to learn more about how to make a difference, or to get involved in juvenile justice ministry, check out Straight Ahead, an organization established by Dr. Scott Larson. The more you learn, the more you'll realize that this is a whole lot more complicated than the talking points you hear on cable news shows. Straight Ahead also has information on becoming a mentor to an "at-risk" kid. I urge you to get involved, whether you think you're gifted at this or not. Helping the poor is not a spiritual gift, it's an expectation God has of every Christian.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
February 2, 2009
Chairman Brad Ashford
Room 1103, State Capitol
Lincoln, NE 68509
Dear Chairman Ashford and Members of the Judiciary Committee:
Human Rights Watch urges Nebraska's Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of Legislative Bill 307, which will abolish the sentence of life without parole for children in your state. We oppose the sentence of life without parole for juveniles because it is cruel, inappropriate (particularly so given recent scientific research), and a violation of international law.
Human Rights Watch has been analyzing the issue of life without parole sentences for children since 2004. In the past four years, our research has culminated in four publications: The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States (a 2005 report on juveniles sentenced to life without parole throughout the United States); an updated executive summary to The Rest of Their Lives (which reflects 2008 findings); Thrown Away (a 2005 report on life without parole for juveniles in Colorado); and, When I Die They'll Send Me Home (a 2008 report on life without parole for juveniles in California). Based on our research, we urge the Committee to vote in favor of Legislative Bill 307 for three main reasons.
First, in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 561 (2005), the US Supreme Court found that the differences between juveniles and adults render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders. Neuroscience reveals the process of cognitive brain development, including the formation of impulse control and decision-making skills, continues into early adulthood-well beyond age 18. The fact that juveniles are still developing their identity and ability to think and plan ahead means that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is not "evidence of an irretrievably depraved character."
The sentence of life without parole was created for the worst criminal offenders, who are deemed to have no possibility of reform. While the crimes they commit cause undeniable suffering, juvenile offenders are not the "worst of the worst."
Human Rights Watch estimates that 59 percent of the youth serving life without parole in the United States received this sentence for their very first offense-they had no prior criminal convictions whatsoever, arising from either juvenile or adult courts. We also estimate that 26 percent of the youth serving the sentence of life without parole in the United States received it for aiding and abetting or felony murder.
Second, the United States is the world's worst human rights violator in terms of sentencing youthful offenders to life without parole. There are currently 2,502 persons serving the sentence of juvenile life without parole in the United States; as of May 2008, to our knowledge, not a single youth is serving this sentence anywhere else in the rest of the world.
International human rights law prohibits life without parole sentences for those who commit their crimes before the age of 18, a prohibition that is universally applied outside of the United States. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) explicitly addresses the contradiction between the particular rights and needs of children and life without parole sentences. Underpinning several of the treaty's provisions is the fundamental recognition of the child's potential for rehabilitation. Recognizing the unacceptability of sentences that negate the potential of children to make changes for better over time, Article 37(a) of the CRC flatly prohibits sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole.
Third, we are deeply concerned that racial discrimination enters into the determination of which youth serve life without possibility of parole sentences, and which youth enjoy the possibility of release. Nationwide, African-American youth serve life without parole sentences at a rate that is ten times higher than that of Caucasian youth. In Nebraska, racial disparities in sentencing practices raise serious concerns: African-American youth arrested for murder are sentenced to life without parole at a rate that is 1.13 times higher than it is for Caucasian youth arrested for murder.
Children can and do commit terrible crimes. When they do, they should be held accountable and face appropriate consequences. Children are different from adults, however, and the punishment imposed for their offenses should reflect their age and level of development. At a minimum, laws should preserve the opportunity for parole for juvenile offenders, and the ability to review whether someone sentenced to life in prison as a child has been rehabilitated.
For the foregoing reasons, Human Rights Watch urges Nebraska to take the opportunity to make its laws more just and eliminate the sentence of life without parole for children by enacting Legislative Bill 307.
Thank you for your consideration, and please feel free to contact me if I can provide you with any further information.
Advocacy Director, US Program
CC: Senators Mark Christensen, Colby Coash, Brenda Council, Steve Lathrop, Scott Lautenbaugh, Amanda McGill, and Kent Rogert
 The terms "children" and "juveniles" in this letter refer to anyone who was below the age of 18 at the time of the offense.
 Id. at 570.
 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, entered into force September 2, 1990, available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm.
 Although the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is a signatory. As such, it has the obligation to refrain from actions which would defeat the treaty's object and purpose.
 The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, p. 39 (2005).
Click here to view or download the PDF version of this letter.