Sunday, May 31, 2009

Worthy Opposes Bills to Parole Juvenile Lifers

Ex-offender, families ask justice, compassion to avoid death in prison

by Diane Bukowski
The Michigan Citizen
May 30, 2009

DETROIT — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy testified, at length, opposing four Michigan House bills that would ban juvenile life without parole sentences, during the second half of hearings called by the House Judiciary Committee May 26.

Numerous prisoners’ families, and Raphael Johnson, an ex-juvenile offender, countered her testimony and that of the Oakland and Berrien County prosecutors.

The bills, as currently amended by House Judiciary Chair and sponsor State Rep. Mark Meadows (D-Lansing), would make those who were under the age of 18 when they committed a crime eligible for parole after 15 years. Previous bills have used the age of 17, which is used by the UN Convention on the Rights on the Child in barring the practice. Meadows said Michigan law automatically considers a 17-year-old an adult.

Worthy brought with her a survivor of a store robbery/murder and the son of the murdered owner, who testified that he firmly supports the death penalty. She said the family of one of the accused threatened the survivor at her college dorm.

“It’s disingenuous to say that these bills will not release prisoners,” Worthy said. “They will be released by the parole board. There is a new push to release more prisoners June 1, and what I’ve seen in the last 18 months is that the parole board has released prisoners without thought or reflection, and the prisoners have re-offended.”

Worthy gave no statistics to back up her allegations.

She also claimed that the bills would make it more difficult for prosecutors to get juveniles to take a second-degree murder plea, as opposed to fighting a first-degree murder charge at trial.

“There were 75 to 100 murders attributed to Young Boys Inc. in the 1980s,” she alleged. “They recruited juveniles to commit murders for them because they would be treated differently than adults. That will happen again. I see it in current gang activity.”

Worthy is to meet with the Judiciary Committee members to negotiate language in the bills which she claimed she could support.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper made similar allegations, claiming that the majority-Black city of Pontiac is a blight on “beautiful suburban Oakland County” due to gang activity.

Advocates of the bills said during both hearings that vulnerable juveniles with no other guidance are often recruited by adults to participate in crimes, but that they do not have an adult’s capacity to control their impulses. Experts testified that scientific studies show that their behavior is governed predominantly by the brain’s limbic system and the fight or flight reaction.

Raphael B. Johnson, a candidate for Detroit’s City Council, told a tale of redemption and rehabilitation that has led him to become a national spokesperson and intervenor for at-risk youth.

“As a teen-ager, I committed a horrible and senseless murder,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood known for violence and drug-dealing. My father went to prison when I was 22-months-old. I looked to the streets and tough men for role models, Despite the fact that I had a scholarship to U of D High School and was captain of the football team, I got involved in a fight after a party and shot someone not even involved in the fight.”

Robinson was sentenced to 10-to-25 years for second-degree murder and spent six of those years in solitary confinement. He was paroled after 12 years, and has been home for five. He said that sentence enabled him to “see the light at the end of the tunnel” and transform himself.

“I was still demonstrating assaultive behavior in the beginning,” he said. “But I began to change at the age of 25. I came into adulthood. I wrote letters expressing my remorse to the family of the victim and came to an understanding of my despicable crime. I read 1,300 books and wrote three. I learned self-discipline and had a strong desire to make up for the harm I had done.”

Since his release, Johnson has obtained a master’s degree from University of Detroit-Mercy. He mentors youth in the community.

But his happiest moment came, he said, when the family of his victim told him that the victim would have forgiven him, knowing all that he has done to make up for his crime.

He is a strong proponent of re-entry support for ex-offenders coming home, and testified in Washington, D.C., to support a national bill similar to the Michigan bills, called the Juvenile Justice Accountability Act, H.R. 4300.

Michael Sepic of the Berrien County Prosecutor’s office read a letter from James Tetzlaff, the brother of the store manager who was killed in a robbery where Efren Paredes, Jr. worked. Paredes was convicted of murder when he was 16. Sepic said Paredes showed no remorse at the trial, and claimed an assistant Attorney General called him a “psychopath.”

Tetzlaff also referred to the death penalty, saying, “It should be a life for a life. In Texas, that would take on a different meaning.”

However, Velia Koppenhoefer, Paredes’ mother, told a different story.

“In Berrien County, all those sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles are children of color,” said Koppenhoefer. “My son has maintained his innocence for 20 years. After work that day, he was driven home by the manager and was with us. Two of his co-defendants were older white youth who are now free. Berrien County has a long and shameful history of racism; it affects every level of the justice system.”

A friend of Edward Sanders, who was 17 when he was sentenced to life without parole in 1976, decried the changes in the juvenile bills excluding seventeen-year-olds.

“Mr. Sanders is a prime example of a Michigan prisoner who has utilized his time behind bars in a productive fashion, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and paralegal certification, and ministering to the legal and spiritual needs of other prisoners,” she said. “He will be devastated to learn that 17-year-olds have been excluded.”

An ACLU representative said that about 150 of Michigan’s 350 juvenile lifers will be eliminated because of this amendment.

Numerous other family members, both of victims and of juvenile lifers, as well as experts from the Michigan State Bar and the ACLU, who favored the bills, spoke.

SCFY has a website at It can be reached by phone at 248-738-2111, and by mail at Box 251941, West Bloomfield, MI 48325-1941. An online petition is available at


Friday, May 29, 2009

MI House Judiciary Committee Convenes Hearing to Consider Bills to End JLWOP

Tuesday, May 26, 2009, the Michigan House Judiciary Committee convened a nearly five hour hearing to consider House Bills 4518 and 4594-4596. The bills, if passed, would abolish life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles in the State of Michigan.

The bills would not release a single prisoner. They would merely give parole review consideration to prisoners after serving 15 years who committed their crimes, or were accused of committing their crimes, before age 17.

Click here to view a blog post about the hearing. The author is also inviting people to blog about the issue of juvenile LWOP sentences in his post. You can also click here to view or download the minutes of the House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Revisions were made to House Bills 4518, 4594, and 4596 during the first House Judiciary Committee hearing that convened.  You can also click here to view several other related studies and documents on our Scribd document-sharing page.

Residents of the State of Michigan are strongly urged to support passage of these bills.  You can join the 95% of Michigan residents who oppose LWOP sentences for juveniles, according to a Wayne State University School of Social Work study, by contacting your State Representatives to pass the bills via phone, fax, e-mail and U.S. Mail.

It is long overdue that the USA join the rest of the civilized world and end LWOP for juveniles. We can no longer be the only country in the world that imposes these deplorable sentences on children.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

God Cries When We Sentence Youth to Die in Prison

Faith Communities for Families and Children presents, "God Cries When We Sentence Children to Die in Prison." Five religious leaders from diverse faith traditions, united with the shared conviction that God does not want any of our children to perish as casualties of our justice system. Sentencing youth to die in prison is not a solution, it is a sign of society's failure. Please view this powerful video and invite others to view it as well.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Too Young to Discard

The Toledo Blade
May 11, 2009

THE fundamental principle the Supreme Court applied to a 2005 ruling that declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles should apply to life imprisonment sentences meted out to juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes.

When the high court takes up two Florida cases later this year, it should decide against life sentences without chance of parole for criminal teens.

There is a good reason juveniles and adults are usually handled separately in the judicial system.

Children who commit crimes should be punished in some fashion, but they are held to lesser standards than adult lawbreakers because their poor judgment and misbehavior reflect their age and their still-developing maturity.

Much as it seems that juveniles are committing ever more serious crimes, most are simply too young to be permanently discarded by society via life sentences without possibility of parole.

In the two cases the court will hear, one defendant was 13 at the time he allegedly raped a 72-year-old Pensacola woman, and the other was 17 when he was charged with participating in a series of robberies.

Both had been involved in earlier crimes and both got life in prison without parole when convicted and sentenced as adults. But those sentences, their lawyers argue, are precisely the kind of extreme measures that, for adolescents, fall under the Eighth Amendment's injunction against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court used that yardstick when outlawing capital punishment for juvenile offenders. Now it should do the same for life without parole for individuals who are, despite the seriousness of their crimes, still children.


Letter Urging Louisiana State Legislature to Support Bill Affecting Juvenile Life Without Parole

May 12, 2009

Members of the Louisiana State Legislature
Louisiana State Capitol
900 North 3rd Street
Baton Rouge, LA 70802

Re: Human Rights Watch supports House Bill 715

Dear Members of the Louisiana State Legislature:

Human Rights Watch urges you to vote in favor of House Bill 715, which would provide persons who were 15 or 16 years old at the time of their crime an opportunity to apply for a parole hearing upon reaching their 31st birthday. The bill would affect, among others, children who have been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Human Rights Watch opposes life without parole for juveniles because it is cruel, inappropriately harsh, and a violation of US treaty obligations. [1]

Human Rights Watch has been analyzing life without parole sentences for children since 2004. 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); Thrown Away (a 2005 report on life without parole for juveniles in Colorado); When I Die They'll Send Me Home (a 2008 report on life without parole for juveniles in California); and The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Youth Offenders in the United States in 2008 (updated executive summary). Based on our research, we urge you to support House Bill 715 for three main reasons.

First, in Roper v. Simmons, the United States Supreme Court recognized that the significant differences between juveniles and adults "render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders." [2] Given their lack of maturity, susceptibility to peer pressure, and incomplete character development, the Court said, even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is not "evidence of irretrievably depraved character." [3]

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 can cause undeniable suffering, juvenile offenders are not the "worst of the worst."

Moreover, Human Rights Watch estimates that 59% of the youth serving life without parole in the United States received this sentence for their very first offense-they had no juvenile or adult criminal record whatsoever prior to the offense that resulted in their life sentence. We also estimate that 26% of the youth serving life without parole in the United States received it for aiding and abetting or for felony murder-that is, they did not personally cause the death of the victim.

Second, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences youthful offenders to life without parole. There are currently more than 2,500 persons in the United States serving life without parole for crimes they committed before age 18; to our knowledge, not a single youth is serving this sentence anywhere else in the world. Louisiana currently has 335 youth serving this harsh sentence; only Pennsylvania and Michigan-both much larger states-have more.

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. Indeed, this practice violates US treaty obligations. The Human Rights Committee (the oversight and enforcement body for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the United States in 1992) has said that "[t]he Committee is of the view that sentencing children to life sentences without parole is of itself not in compliance with article 24(1) of the Covenant."  Moreover, the Committee Against Torture (the oversight and enforcement body for the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by the United States in 1994) has stated that life without parole sentences for youth "could constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" in violation of the treaty.

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. In Louisiana, at least 79% of juveniles serving life without parole are black, although African Americans constitute only 30% of Louisiana's population.  Last year the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (the oversight and enforcement body for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a treaty ratified by the United States in 1994) concluded that, in light of the racial disparities in the sentencing of youth to life without parole, "the persistence of such sentencing is incompatible with article 5(a) of the Convention. The Committee therefore recommends that the [United States] discontinue the use of life sentence without parole against [youth offenders], and review the situation of persons already serving such sentences."

Children can and do commit terrible crimes. When they do, they should be held accountable and face appropriate consequences. But children are different from adults, 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 Louisiana to eliminate the sentence of life without parole for children by enacting House Bill 715.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can provide any further information.

Very truly yours,

David C. Fathi
Director, US Program


[1] In this letter the terms "juveniles," "youth," and "children" refer to persons under age 18.

[2] 543 U.S. 551, 570 (2005).

[3] Ibid.


Click here to view a PDF version of this letter.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

U.N. Expert Calls on U.S. to Address Ongoing Issues of Racism

May 8, 2009

NEW YORK (Map) - Special Rapporteur Calls For Law Against Racial Profiling And End To Juvenile Life Without Parole

NEW YORK, May 8 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In a report made public today, the United Nations independent expert on racism urged the U.S. to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also called on Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) and create a bipartisan commission to evaluate the on-going fight against racism and the occurrence of re-segregation, especially in housing and education.

Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene made his recommendations after an official visit in June 2008 during which he met with officials from the Departments of Justice, State, Labor and Energy, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, representatives of state and local government, affected community members and non-government organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union.

The following can be attributed to Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program:

"This report is a stark reminder of U.S. achievements and failures to fight racism and protect equality for all. For the U.S. to lead by example, it should heed the recommendations of this international expert and do more to address ongoing issues of racism in this country. The government should intensify the enforcement of laws that protect civil and human rights. A good first step would be to work with Congress and local governments to reform and strengthen existing oversight and enforcement mechanisms and provide more resources to enhance investigative powers to review complaints of human rights violations in general and racial and ethnic bias in particular. This administration has pledged to renew the U.S. commitment to human rights at home and abroad. Now we must walk the walk and turn words into action by addressing the ongoing discrimination and injustice that exists here at home."

The following can be attributed to Chandra Bhatnagar, a staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program:

"Our government invited the U.N. Special Rapporteur to conduct a thorough analysis of racial discrimination in the United States, and now our government should take notice of the widespread and systemic problems that he documented. The report highlights very serious issues including racism in the criminal justice system, and the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, serious abuses facing immigrant and African-American workers in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the overall vulnerability of immigrant workers around the country, and the need to meaningfully address the 'school-to-prison pipeline.' The Obama administration has an opportunity to address all of these important issues and this report offers us a path forward toward justice, equality and human rights for all."

The special rapporteur will present his findings at the next session of the U.N. Human Rights Council next month. On April 27, the U.S. submitted a list of human rights pledges and commandments as part of its bid to join the Council.

The report is available online at:

More information about the ACLU's work with the special rapporteur is available online at:


Thursday, May 7, 2009

US: End Life Sentences for Youth Offenders

New Figures Show More Youth Sentenced to Die in Prison

May 7, 2009
4:05 PM

CONTACT: Human Rights Watch (HRW)
Tel: +1-212-216-1832

(Washington, DC) - The US Congress should pass a proposed law to end the sentencing of youth offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee. At least 2,574 individuals in the United States are serving these sentences for crimes they committed before they were 18 years old. The United States is the only country that uses such sentences for crimes committed by juveniles.

On May 6, 2009, Representatives Robert "Bobby" Scott and John Conyers introduced H.R. 2289, the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, in the US House of Representatives. The bill would require states and the federal government to offer youth offenders meaningful opportunities for parole after serving 15 years of a life sentence.

"Sentencing juveniles to die in prison is cruel, costly, and unnecessary," said David Fathi, US Program director at Human Rights Watch. "Even youths who commit terrible crimes can grow and be rehabilitated." [Click here to view Fathi's letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Judicary Committee.]

The introduction of the bill coincided with Human Rights Watch's release of new figures showing that there are currently at least 2,574 persons in US prisons who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18, an increase of 90 from May 2008.

The higher number is due primarily to improvements in data reporting rather than significant increases in the number of youth sentenced to life without parole. Increases were most dramatic in California (250 total, an increase of 23), Michigan (346 total, an increase of 30), and the federal Bureau of Prisons (37 total, an increase of 35). Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas also saw increases in juvenile life without parole. The states with the largest numbers of prisoners serving this sentence are Pennsylvania (444), Michigan (346), Louisiana (335), Florida (266), and California (250).

Research by Human Rights Watch found that nationwide, 59 percent of youth serving life without parole sentences received the sentence for their first criminal conviction, and 16 percent were 15 or younger at the time of their offense. An estimated 26 percent were convicted on the basis of accomplice liability or felony murder. These are crimes in which a teenager who commits a non-homicide felony such as a robbery is held responsible for a codefendant's act of murder during the course of the crime. State laws often do not require the person convicted on this charge to know that a murder was planned or even that the codefendant was armed.

"Subjecting juvenile offenders to the harshest sentence possible fails to recognize that they are simply different from adults," Fathi said. "The evidence we have is that they are less culpable for their actions, and more amenable to rehabilitation."

Recent studies of adolescent brain development have found that teens do not have the abilities of adults to make sound decisions, control their impulses, resist group pressures, or weigh the long-term consequences of their actions.

Human Rights Watch has also found substantial racial disparities in life without parole sentences given to juveniles. On average across the country, black youth are serving life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth. In Pennsylvania, which has the largest number of juvenile offenders serving life without parole, black youth are 21 times as likely to be serving the sentence as white youth.

Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the United States to discontinue the use of the sentence, finding that the persistent racial disparities in sentencing were incompatible with US treaty obligations. US sentencing of youth to life without parole is also a violation of, or raises concerns under, other international treaties to which the United States is party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009 would require states to provide juvenile offenders serving life sentences with meaningful opportunities for parole at least once during their first 15 years of incarceration, and at least every three years thereafter. States that do not comply would lose a portion of their federal funding for law enforcement. The bill would also require parole hearings for juveniles given life sentences under federal law.

"Giving these juvenile offenders an opportunity for a parole hearing is not a guarantee of release," said Fathi. "But it offers them incentives for rehabilitation and brings the United States into line with internationally recognized standards of justice."

On May 4, the US Supreme Court agreed to decide whether life without parole for juveniles who have committed only non-homicide crimes violates the US Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. The case will be heard in the court's next term, which begins in October.


Putting the Kids Away

Putting the Kids Away

by Michelle Chen
The ColorLines Blog
May 7, 2009

Compared to children in other countries with similar resources, America’s youth tend to be a mediocre bunch in rankings of education, infant survival and overall well-being.

But the United States has earned one major distinction in how it treats youngest citizens. Nationwide, more than 2,500 individuals are set to die in prison for crimes they committed as children. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Human Rights Watch stated today, “there is not a single individual serving this sentence in the rest of the world.”

So, America clearly leads the world in producing monstrous killer youth. Though, it’s hard to square that this finding from HRW’s research:
“approximately 26 percent of the youth sentenced to life without parole had not actually committed a murder and were convicted for their role in aiding and abetting or participating in a felony. In these cases, someone else was the primary actor in committing the crime.”
In contrast to the hyped image of the rabid “juvenile super-predator,” the majority were first-time offenders. But they did have some things in common with their adult counterparts in the system: they were disproportionately Black and almost all male.

Though comprehensive data was not available for all states, HRW found that the most severe racial disparities in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California, “where black youth are between 18 and 48 times more likely to be serving a sentence of life without parole than white youth.” Evidently, we may not have more dangerous kids—just more kids caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and very likely, with the wrong skin color.

Activists point out that aside from the sheer barbarity of condemning a child to life behind bars—and science that argues in favor of greater leniency toward child offenders—our criminal justice system is uniquely ill-equipped to administer this punishment. You might say it's no wonder we have so many children in prison for life, in light of epidemic racial disparities at every phase of the criminal process, incompetency plaguing law enforcement procedures, and a lack of due process for child defendants.

International law, HRW argues, prohibits life sentences without parole for youth under the age of 18. International human rights bodies have found the United States to be in violation of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination—another area where U.S. exceptionalism reigns.

Before all those young lives run out in our nation's prisons, lawmakers can step in to give some of them a chance to rehabilitate and rejoin their communities by passing the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act. The bill would bar life-without-parole sentences juvenile crimes in the federal system, and broaden parole opportunities to youth offenders in state prisons who have already served a number of years.

The legislation wouldn't fix the myriad flaws of state and federal corrections policy, but it would demonstrate to the rest of the world that, having stolen the youth of so many child “offenders,” the American criminal justice system is finally ready to grow up.


Another Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Teens

Another Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Teens
by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
May 6, 2009

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court took a big step toward righting a galling wrong. It joined nearly every other nation on the globe and banned teen executions. Now it should take the next big step and dump all laws that let states lock up juvenile offenders for the rest of their life.

There are lots of them. In a report last year, Human Rights Watch found that more than 2,000 juvenile offenders are serving life without possibility of parole sentences. The U.S. locks up more juveniles for life without the possibility of parole than all nations combined.

The Court will rule on two Florida cases, where juvenile offenders got no-parole life sentences. The two cases point to the often-appalling legal and racial inequities in the juvenile no-parole sentencing. The two men committed crimes when they were 17 years old. The crimes were violent crimes; a rape and an armed home invasion robbery. But in both cases, the evidence, testimony and witness identification were muddled and contradictory. They were still convicted and have spent more than a decade in prison.

As is the case with the death penalty, the no-parole sentences are far from race neutral. In the Florida case, both men are African American. Black teens are 10 times more likely to receive a no-parole life sentence than white youths. They are even more likely to get those sentences when their victims are white. This was the case in the Florida convictions, and they are often tried by all-white or mostly-white juries. Those same juries seldom consider their age as a mitigating factor.

A significant number of juveniles sentenced to no-parole sentences did not actually commit murder but were participants in a robbery or were at the scene of the crime when the death occurred. The majority of the teens slapped with the draconian sentence had no prior convictions, and a substantial number were age 15 or under.

Judges and juries say that violence is violence no matter the age of the perpetrator, and that punishment must be severe to deter crime. Prosecutors and courts in the 40 states that convict and impose no-parole life sentences on juvenile offenders -- with California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan, and Florida leading the pack -- have repeatedly rejected challenges that teen no-parole sentences are a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Though murder rates have plunged to near record lows, the public remains anxious of violent crimes, especially young persons who commit them. Lawmakers are loath to do anything that will bring public heat on them that they are soft on crime. This is still considered the kiss of death for political careers.

Yet most experts agree that children don't have the same maturity, judgment, or emotional development as adults. In a report on juveniles and the death penalty, Amnesty International found that a number of child offenders sentenced to death suffered severe physical or sexual abuse. Many others were alcohol or drug impaired, or suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all were below average intelligence.

Despite Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth, most experts insist that children are not natural-born predators. If given proper treatment, counseling, skills training and education, most can be turned into productive adults.

An irony in the Supreme Court's 2005 ban on executing teen killers was that the ban actually worked against no-parole reform efforts. Since states could no longer execute juvenile offenders, then the legal thinking was that it was far more humane to sentence them to life sentences. Victims' rights advocacy groups claim that taking away the option of no- parole sentences for juveniles will weaken crime deterrents. This makes it even tougher to make the case that counseling, treatment, and education is the more effective way to redeem young people who commit crimes than harsh sentencing -- but it is.

And there’s the gnawing question of race. The racial gap between black and white juvenile offenders is vast and troubling. The rush to toss the key on black juveniles has had terrible consequences in black communities. It has increased poverty, fractured families, and further criminalized a generation of young black men.

No matter what their age, those who commit crimes -- especially murder -- must be punished, but the punishment should not only fit the crime, it should also fit the age of the person who committed it, and the circumstances that drove them to commit their offenses. If juvenile offenders with the right help can turn their life around, they deserve that chance, and judges should be able to give it to them.

The Supreme Court in its decision to ban juvenile executions called teen executions "shameful." They recognized that the practice cannot, and should not, be justified on moral or legal grounds, and that it was past time to put a stop to them. The court should recognize the same with the no-parole sentence for teens and outlaw it.


Monday, May 4, 2009

U.S Supreme Court Justices to Hear Appeals of Lifers Sentenced as Teens

By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
Monday, May 4, 2009

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court will decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment for young criminal offenders to be sentenced to life in prison with parole.

The justices agreed without comment Monday to accept appeals from two Florida inmates convicted as teenagers of criminal offenses. Oral arguments will be heard in the fall.

One of the men is Joe Sullivan, 33, serving a life term without the possibility of parole in a Florida prison while confined to a wheelchair. He was sentenced for a rape committed when he was 13.

The man's lawyers say he is one of only two people his age in the world who was tried as an adult and sentenced to "die in prison" for a non-homicide.

The justices also accepted a case dealing with Terrance Graham, who was 17 when he took part in a violent home-invasion robbery while on parole for another felony.

Outside a death-penalty context, the high court has offered little recent guidance on how to treat the youngest of underage criminal defendants. The appellate record for rapists younger than 15 is almost nonexistent, legal experts say.

Child legal advocates say many states lack adequate resources to handle young inmates given long sentences, including a lack of proper jailhouse counseling. Few studies have been conducted on the psychological effects of young defendants facing life in prison at such a young age, said the Equal Justice Institute, which is representing Sullivan's high court case.

"We have created a forgotten population with a lot of needs," said Bryan Stevenson, Sullivan's lawyer.

The crime happened in 1989, when, Sullivan admitted, he and two friends ransacked a home on Seabrook Street in West Pensacola. But he denied the prosecutor's claim that he returned with a knife and sexually assaulted the 72-year-old female homeowner. An older co-defendant claimed that Sullivan was the rapist.

After a daylong trial, Escambia County Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life without parole.

"I am going to try to send him away for as long as I can. He is beyond help," the judge said. "The juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan."

Sullivan, who had a lengthy juvenile record, continues to deny that he committed the attack.

At the time, state prosecutor Larry Kaden -- who retired this year -- said, "It was a brutal crime, and he had an extensive record. This was a bad, bad crime."

The Florida attorney general's office told the high court that prosecutors should have the discretion they have long been given to decide how harshly young criminals should be prosecuted. Sexual battery remains a crime punishable by life imprisonment in Florida.

A study by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative found eight prisoners serving life terms for crimes committed at age 13, all in the United States. Among them is another Florida inmate, Ian Manuel, who was 13 when convicted of attempted murder and robbery in 1990.

The Justice Department reports that no 13-year-old has been given life without parole for a non-homicide in a decade. And although about a thousand people under 15 are arrested for rape every year, none has been given life without parole since Sullivan.

Only a handful of states -- including Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oregon -- prohibit sentencing minors to life without a chance for parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Equal Justice Initiative says 19 states have laws allowing the possibility of life without parole for those younger than 14.

In 2005, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for underage killers. The justices cited evolving "national standards" as a reason to ban such executions.

Sullivan is in deteriorating health from multiple sclerosis and is confined to "close management" for dangerous or trouble-prone inmates, state corrections officials say.

His lawyers admit that he has had more than a 100 incidents of fighting and threatening inmates and guards, plus having contraband and weapons, but they say Sullivan is the victim of bullying by other prisoners and is mentally disabled.

"It's important for the criminal justice system to recognize that inmates like Joe [Sullivan] are going to change biologically, psychologically and emotionally as they grow up in prison," Stevenson said. "We should not assume it is a change for the worse."

The thrust of their argument before the high court is not that Sullivan is innocent or that he seeks his freedom now but that he deserves to someday make his case before the state parole board.


Change the Juvenile Lifer Law

Offer at least the hope of a second chance for young offenders

by Jeff Gerritt
The Detroit Free Press
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Michigan's notorious juvenile lifer law has drawn fire from human rights groups nationwide, and rightly so. The law has forced judges to give kids as young as 14 -- an age when they cannot legally drive or buy a pack of cigarettes -- the maximum adult penalty, with no chance of parole.

This law must change, and a package of bills sponsored by state Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, and others in the state Senate and House offers the best hope yet of doing that. A public hearing is set before the House Judiciary Committee on May 6.

These bills are not soft on crime. They would not, by themselves, release a single juvenile lifer. They would only give them a chance at parole after they have served 10 years, and some have already served decades.

The United States, with more than 2,000 juvenile lifers, is alone in handing down mandatory life sentences to children, according to Human Rights Watch. Nearly 350 Michigan inmates are serving such sentences for first-degree murder -- the third-highest number among states. Many were convicted for aiding and abetting the crime, and some received harsher sentences than the actual killers got. For a third, the crime was their first offense. Two-thirds of Michigan's juvenile lifers are African American.

Expensive injustice

Michigan's juvenile lifer laws were enacted during the 1980s, when many draconian measures, including three-strike laws, were approved around the country. For years, bills to repeal the laws stalled in committee. But last year, the Democratic-controlled House approved them with some bipartisan support, giving backers real hope for this legislative session.

Fueling such hopes is a general rethinking of Michigan's criminal justice and corrections policies. Michigan faces a $1.6-billion deficit next year, so politicians, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, have moved to right-size Michigan prisons. Costing $2 billion a year, the Michigan Department of Corrections eats up 20% of the state's general fund -- more than the state spends on higher education.

But saving money is not the only issue; there are moral, legal and constitutional problems with Michigan's juvenile lifer law. It contradicts science, legal tradition, public opinion and plain common sense.

Brain-imaging research shows -- big surprise -- that teenagers are more impulsive and unstable than adults, even without the abuse and neglect that many young offenders have faced. "Sentencing a child to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment and should be considered unconstitutional," Brater told me, after leading the fight against Michigan's juvenile lifer law for the last six years. "Given the Supreme Court's ruling on the death penalty for minors, the logical legal inference is that the principle should apply to life without parole as well."

The case of Henry Hill Jr.

Henry Hill Jr., MDOC No. 169371, grew up in Saginaw and was too young to buy a beer when he was arrested for murder. Like many juvenile lifers, Hill took part in the crime but did not do the killing. Under Michigan law, aiding and abetting a first-degree murder carries the same penalty, and prosecutors argued that Hill planned the killing with his cousin, Larnell Johnson, who was then 18.

Johnson shot Anthony Thomas repeatedly during a fight at Wickes Park in the summer of 1980 (Johnson is also doing mandatory life). But witnesses, including an off-duty sheriff's deputy, said Hill was running from the scene when Johnson killed Thomas. Before Hill left, he fired six shots with a handgun, up into the air, trying to scare people away. None of Hill's bullets matched those found in the victim's body.

Hill's maturity level was far less than even his age would suggest. In a court-ordered evaluation, a psychologist called the 16-year-old mentally deficient, insecure and unable to tell right from wrong. The report states that Hill, who dropped out in the 11th grade, had the education level of a third-grader and the mental maturity of a 9-year-old. In no way should Hill have been judged by adult standards.

"I was dumb as a box of rocks," Hill, now 45, told me at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. "I couldn't even read. I was 20 before I really realized the significance of what I had done."

Hill has served nearly 30 years in prison -- two-thirds of his life. The 16-year-old who had been labeled mentally deficient is now bright, articulate and well read. He earned a GED in prison and took college courses. He is writing a book about his life.

A psychological evaluation completed in February by the Department of Corrections called Hill cooperative, polite, articulate and straightforward. It concluded that his thinking was logical, flexible and goal-oriented.

Hill applied for a commutation in September and, after getting interviewed by the Parole Board last month, hopes for freedom.

Although he didn't kill Thomas, Hill knows he played a part and deserved to be punished. "We were all friends at one time. It was a tragedy -- just senseless. He lost his life and we could have lost ours."

Locked out of a second chance

But when is enough, enough? Keeping him locked up serves neither justice nor the taxpayer. At the very least, he and other juvenile lifers deserve a chance at freedom.

I hope Hill gets his commutation, but the governor reserves such actions for special cases only. Hundreds more like Hill will never get the same opportunity. Changing state law to make juvenile lifers eligible for parole is the best way to correct this unjust and unforgiving system.

Speak Out

A public hearing on second chance bills to repeal Michigan's juvenile lifer law -- HB 4518, 4594, 4595 and 4596 -- will take place on Wednesday, May 6, at 10:30 a.m. before the House Judiciary Committee at 521 House Office Building in Lansing. To voice an opinion, you can also contact your state representative or senator or Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Contact information for state representatives can be found at For state senators, go to Granholm can be contacted at, or by calling 517-373-3400, or writing her at P.O. Box 30013, Lansing, MI 48909.

Corresponding bills in the state Senate -- SB 173, 174, 175 and 176 -- are before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by state Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland. Kuipers can be contacted at; by phone at 517-373-6920, or by mail at P.O. Box 30036, Lansing, MI 48909.

To read "Second Chances" profiles of juvenile lifers by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, go to