Sunday, March 15, 2009

Juvenile Lifer Bills in Senate

by Diane Bukowski
The Michigan Citizen
Sunday, March 15, 2009

DETROIT — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy charged a 17-year-old with assault with intent to commit murder, felonious assault, assault with a dangerous weapon on school grounds, carrying a concealed weapon and felony firearm after he wounded another 17-year-old in the stomach inside Central High School Feb. 18.

The two were gambling in the halls, a practice that has being going on since at least the 70s, according to one Central High alumni. The 17-year-old faces up to life in prison. Days later, police raided CHS and carried away teens as young as 14 on police buses to face loitering charges, whether or not they were students.

“Until they improve the conditions in our schools, there will be more trouble,” said Steve Conn, a high school teacher for 22 years with the Detroit Public Schools. “Despair runs so deep among our young people, who are treated like their lives don’t matter.”

A 16-year-old Detroiter was ordered to stand trial on first-degree murder charges Feb. 5 in connection with the shooting death of an Oak Park police officer, under unclear circumstances. Numerous suburbanites wrote in to daily news message boards calling for his execution, or at least life without parole, although he has not yet been tried or convicted.

These children, and numerous others in Detroit and communities across Michigan, have 400 counterparts already in the system, children who were sentenced at the age of 17 or below to life in prison without parole, and at least 1,000 others serving lengthy jail terms. The number of juvenile non-parolable lifers is up substantially from slightly over 300 a year ago, indicating that more juveniles are newly entering the system, condemned to death behind bars.

But there is hope on the horizon.

“The Juvenile Life Without Parole bills that were passed last year in the House of Representatives represent the greatest hope I have had in 33 years,” wrote Edward Sanders. “These bills must be voted on in the Senate now, to give the second chance we pray for.”

Sanders, who is currently incarcerated at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, was 17 when he was convicted in a drive-by shooting in 1976, although he was not the shooter.

He is awaiting word from the Michigan parole board regarding his request for commutation. Before Michigan prisons ceased providing college courses, he obtained his bachelor’s degree and now helps other prisoners as a “jail-house” lawyer and spiritual advisor.

Sanders was referring to Senate Bills 0171 through 0176, sponsored by State Sens. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), Martha Scott (D-Highland Park) and Michael Switalski (D-Roseville). Co-sponsors include Glenn Anderson, (D-Westland), Michael Prusi (D-Ishpeming), Samuel “Buzz” Thomas (D-Detroit), Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit), and Gilda Jackson (D-Huntington Woods).

House versions were passed Dec. 4 by an overwhelming margin of 83-22. The current Senate bills, however, will have to go back to the House again for approval before they can be forwarded to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

“The idea of sending a person whose brain is not fully developed to prison for life has been determined to be inhumane,” said Brater. “The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world, and Michigan is one of few states in the U.S. with this practice. Many of these youth were sentenced along with an adult defendant who got a lesser sentence and many were victims of abuse or neglect or are people with a mental illness or disability.”

The series of bills therefore addresses alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill individuals and diversion from jail under other circumstances as well as the central life without parole question.

S.B. 0173 says, “An individual who was less than 18 years of age when he or she committed a crime for which he or she was sentenced to serve a minimum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more, or who was sentenced to imprisonment for life, including imprisonment for life without parole eligibility, who has served 10 years of his or her sentence is subject to the jurisdiction of the parole board and may be released on parole.”

The bill specifies several aspects of the prisoner’s individual situation for the parole board to consider.

All six bills, introduced Jan. 29, are now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by State Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-Dewitt). Cropsey has expressed reluctance to let the bills out of committee.

Brater said that although the Senate is predominantly Republican, efforts are constantly being made to reach out to that side of the aisle. A particular consideration is the huge cost of such incarcerations. Both the Greater Detroit and Michigan Chambers of Commerce have passed resolutions calling for a reduction in Michigan’s prison population, along with numerous other organizations and even major media.

Felicia Tyson, part of a group of family members of juvenile lifers, said that they are continuing to organize and lobby Senators as well as Representatives, in the same fashion that won passage of the House bills last year.

“We are asking people to write, phone and email their legislators, and are planning a mass visit to the House in April,” said Tyson. Over 200 family members and even victims turned out for a lobbying effort last year.

The website for the group can be found at

The group’s address is P.O. Box 251941, West Bloomfield, MI 48325-1941 and phone 248-738-2111. An online petition to legislators is available at


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bill Could Free Teen Killers

by Alison Costello, Capital News Service
The Macomb Daily
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

LANSING — Amy Black was 16 when she helped her adult boyfriend clean up the crime scene after he stabbed a man to death in 1990 in Muskegon County.

When they were both arrested, Black falsely claimed she was the killer because she thought she would be treated with more leniency than her older boyfriend.

Because there were no appropriate juvenile facilities for her, she was sentenced as an adult to life without chance of parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

Now 34, she has served more than 16 years and is at the Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth.

Black is not alone. The United States is the only country, besides Somalia, that sentences teenagers to life in prison with no chance for parole.

And Michigan is second behind Pennsylvania with more than 300, according to the ACLU. Louisiana, California and Florida trail behind.

Patricia Caruso, director of the Department of Corrections, said the number reaches 400.

Jeff Fink, the Kalamazoo County prosecutor, said each state has a different age group to determine which suspects are considered juveniles. Michigan's is 14 to 16.

Kevin Boyd of Oakland County is one of them.

At 16, Boyd and his mother were convicted of murdering his father.

Boyd denies the charge but admits to giving the keys to his father's apartment to his mother and her lover, knowing that they had discussed killing him.

According to the ACLU, Boyd had suffered emotional and physical abuse from both parents who had divorced five years before the murder, attempted suicide in middle school and had been diagnosed with severe depression.

Now 31, he has served more than a decade and is at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer.

So at a time when the state struggles with a $1.5 billion deficit and a prison system eating up 20 percent of the budget, advocates of changing the law say it's time to rethink sending juveniles to prison for life without parole.

Juvenile offenders like Black and Boyd may get a second chance if Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, has her way.

She re-introduced legislation to ban life without parole for juveniles and allow such inmates already serving such sentences to apply for parole.

"Many of the juveniles receiving this sentence were acting with older codefendants who received lesser sentences," she said. "Many were abandoned or neglected or had untreated mental illness."

The bill is cosponsored by Sens. Mickey Switalski, D-Roseville; Martha Scott, D-Highland Park; Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit; Gilda Jacobs, D-Huntington Woods; Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit; Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit; and Buzz Thomas, D-Detroit.

Patricia Caruso, director of the state Department of Corrections, supports the legislation and said juveniles should never come into the adult prison system.

"When you put a 14-year-old in an adult system, you've given up. Adult prisons are not designed for juveniles," she said.

In Michigan, the juvenile justice system is run by the Department of Human Services — out of her jurisdiction.

"I'm not saying they should not be held accountable," she said. "I don't think that until they are adults they should come into the adult prison system."

But Fink, who said his office sends fewer than one Kalamazoo County juvenile to adult prison per year, said it's important to have the option.

That's because unless offenders are sentenced to the adult prison system right away or when they turn 17, they'll get out once their juvenile sentence is served, he said.

"Even if you're telling people, 'I hate women, I want to kill people,' you'll be released," he said. "Unfortunately, there are a few juveniles who are a danger to the public."

According to Corrections officials, it costs about $30,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison.

For Michigan's 300 to 400 juvenile lifers, that works out to about $9 million to $12 million of the department's annual $2 billion budget.

Brater's bill is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jailing Kids for Cash Ignored

by Clarence Page
Middletown Journal
Tuesday, March 03, 2009

While many Americans, including me, were caught up in the fury around the New York Post's weird "dead chimpanzee cartoon," remarkably less attention was paid to a far more serious scandal in Pennsylvania coal country: a multimillion-dollar scheme to jail kids for cash.

The tale of two Luzerne County judges shows what can go terribly wrong with for-profit prisons and detention centers.

Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan pleaded guilty to sentencing thousands of children to jail, often without any access to a lawyer, in a kickback scheme that brought them a reported $2.6 million over seven years.

The two received a commission for every day they sent a child to private detention centers run by Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister prison-management company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care.

As many as 2,000 kids are reported to have been incarcerated out of 5,000 who were sentenced while the scheme was in operation. They included Jamie Quinn, a 14-year-old Scranton girl who was sent to juvenile jail for nine months. Her offense? Slapping a friend who, she claims, slapped her first. Hardly a hardened criminal.

The case cracked open after Hillary Transue, 15, was sent away for three months for posting a Web site parody of an assistant principal at her school. As in many other cases, her mother had been persuaded to waive the girl's right to a lawyer. Her hearing before Judge Ciavarella lasted less than two minutes.

After the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center took her case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the FBI began an investigation. The two judges entering guilty-plea agreements in February for tax evasion and wire fraud. Three separate class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the imprisoned children.

The two Luzerne County judges are only the tip of a scandalous iceberg that has been floating around for juvenile detention systems for years. Critics have long complained that private prisons create perverse incentives to throw nonviolent offenders in jail who might be handled better and more cheaply in community-based alternative programs.

Kids are doubly vulnerable, an Associated Press survey found last year. Lax oversight and soft standards for tracking abuse make it hard to tell exactly how many youngsters have been assaulted or neglected.

An AP survey of state public and privately-contracted juvenile correction agencies found more than 13,000 claims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by staff members from Jan. 1, 2004 to the end of 2007, although only 1,343 of those claims of abuse — including 143 claims of sexual abuse — were confirmed by various authorities.

A big part of the problem in dealing with troubled youths is that some will make up stories. Some who suffer real abuse are pressured not to report it — and when they do, too often they are not believed.

All of which makes it very important that we pay attention to the people we taxpayers pay to deal with kids who get into serious trouble. For a lot of kids who have substance abuse problems, severe educational needs and mental health traumas, juvenile facilities offer hope of last resort.

At least, that's what they're supposed to do. For the Pennsylvania judges, juvenile correction facilities became a cash cow. Systems that pay contractors at per diem rates, according to how may kids they warehouse, invite further abuse.

That's why I was appalled that the confessions of the two judges were overshadowed completely by other news such as, for example, the New York Post's chimpanzee cartoon. Civil rights activists, among other folks, thought it was a crude mockery of President Obama as an ape. It sparked national protests and an apology from the Post and Rupert Murdoch, head of the newspaper's owner, NewsCorp, who insisted it was only a lampoon of the economic stimulus bill.

But where, I wondered, is the outrage over a system that encouraged two Pennsylvania judges to jail kids for cash? Since the kids were a racial mix in a predominately white area of the state, I wondered: When the issue is more about class than race, do civil rights leaders stop caring about kids?

Or maybe, like all of us, it's easier for them to get excited about race when it helps us to avoid dealing with the far more vexing issue of economic inequality.

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail address: