Wednesday, July 11, 2012

ACLU of Michigan Juvenile Justice Times

ACLU of Michigan Juvenile Justice Times Newsletter   Please go to this link to read the entire newsletter. Here is an excerpt:

In the Courts: Are Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide two cases involving the practice of sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole. The decisions will have clear implications for JLWOP cases in Michigan and other states.sentence. 

The teen was sent to a juvenile detention facility where he will remain until he turns 21, at which point he will be reevaluated. At that point, even if the Supreme Court rulings in Miller and Jackson make LWOP unconstitutional for those 14 and under, Charles could still be subject to an adult sentence, possibly pardonable life.

In Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court will decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence teens to life without parole for murder and felony murder. To learn more and see more information on these cases, go to

In a recent high profile Michigan case, fifteen-year-old Charles Lewis Jr. was facing a possible life without pa-role sentence last month after being convicted of participating in a crime that lead to a murder. He was just 13 at the time of the incident, and his father is alleged to be responsible for the fatal shooting.

The judge instead gave Charles a delayed, or blended sentence. The teen was sent to a juvenile detention
facility where he will remain until he turns 21, at which point he will be reevaluated. At that point, even if the
Supreme Court rulings in Miller and Jackson make LWOP unconstitutional for those 14 and under, Charles could still be subject to an adult sentence, possibly pardonable life.

According to attorney Deborah LaBelle, “the law is unclear when he would be eligible for parole. If the Supreme Court only strikes down mandatory sentences, which do not consider lessor culpability, this may not impact Charles as the Court was required to consider his youth in deciding on the sentence. We will have to see what the Court says.”

The other case making national headlines in Michigan this year was People v. Jones. In the first ruling of its kind since the U.S. Supreme Court declared juvenile life without parole sentences for non-capital crimes
unconstitutional in 2010, a judge in Kalamazoo overturned the sentence of Michigan prisoner Anthony Shamont Jones. Anthony was just 17 when he left the scene of a robbery before his companion shot the store owner to death. Anthony was re-sentenced to life with parole.

In the ruling, the court remarked that Anthony “is one of the juveniles whom the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham attempts to shield from a life in prison without even the potential for re-entry into society. This is so primarily because Defendant did not kill [the victim].”

This historic case also recognized that a 17 year-old would be considered a juvenile, despite Michigan's law setting the adult age at 17 for all criminal prosecutions.

As he has served 33 years, Anthony is now eligible for immediate release. The prosecutor will not appeal, and neither the prosecutor nor the victim’s family oppose parole.

Keep up to date on the latest news at or

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nation’s High Court Ends Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences for Youth

 by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion abolishing life without parole (LWOP) sentences for the 2,500 prisoners across the U.S. who were condemned to die in prison for crimes they were convicted of as juveniles.

Courts will now have discretion to impose a lesser sentence in those cases and consider age as a factor in sentencing. Juveniles can receive LWOP sentences, however, it is a discretionary sentence now, not a mandatory sentence in cases involving homicide. Prisoners all ready serving LWOP sentences for crimes they were convicted of as juveniles are now eligible for resentencing. How that process occurs will vary by state.

The court conveyed what any parent, educator and common sense can tell us: children are different than adults. They possess the unique capacity for change and growth because they are still cognitively developing, and should be provided a path for rehabilitation during their incarceration.

Children are not incorrigible or expendable, nor are they miniature adults. They are not transformed into adults because they make mistakes or bad choices no more than they are transformed into adults for positive achievements or making good decisions.

It is undisputed that young people must be held accountable for their actions. This accountability, however, can only be achieved in ways that reflect the young person's age and his/her capacity for change. Just as the punishment should fit the crime, the punishment should also fit the offender.

In Michigan, 73% of the prisoners serving LWOP sentences for crimes they were convicted of committing when they were juveniles are people of color, yet they comprise only 27% of the youth in the state.

Nearly half of those convicted are also first-time offenders. Most grew up in impoverished areas, were victims of abuse, and were regularly exposed to drugs and violence.

The International Journal of Forensic Mental Health reports that 2/3 of males and 3/4 of females in the juvenile justice system show signs of one or more psychiatric disorders.

Taken together these findings reflect a very vulnerable demographic of 200,000 to 250,000 juveniles annually transferred to adult courts that are disparately being subjected to the harshest sentences meted out by judges.

Sadly, the vast majority of these juveniles are incapable of defending themselves against the political gamesmanship and cascade of abuses and mistreatment they are subjected to by older, experienced professionals in the criminal justice system.

It is a moral imperative that we now amplify the national conversation about the draconian policy of sentencing juveniles in adult courts. Rather than abandon and demonize young people, citizens should urge legislators to reform sentencing guidelines and work to ensure fairness in the parole process.

Life sentences in any form are veritable death sentences in Michigan. As long as they remain sentencing options for juveniles their opportunity for serious parole consideration will remain unattainable reality.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner sentenced to LWOP as a juvenile in 1989. Learn more about Efren at

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

No Remorse? One Law Professor Studies the Impact of Emotion in the Juvenile Justice System/

No Remorse? One Law Professor Studies the Impact of Emotion in the Juvenile Justice System Written by: Ryan Schill on Feb 15, 2012
Martha Grace Duncan in her office at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta Sitting behind her strikingly barren desk, with the bright, mid-winter sunlight breaking through the trees and streaming through her office windows, Martha Grace Duncan, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, in Atlanta recounts the case of nine-year-old Cameron Kocher.
As she speaks her small, compact frame remains nearly motionless, betraying no emotion. But her eyes tell the story, portraying the internal mix-up of sadness, passion and nerdy intensity that she feels about the topic. Duncan may not wear her heart on her sleeve, but if you pay attention it’s not hard to find.
In March 1989, on a cold, snowy day in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, Kocher fatally shot a seven-year-old playmate with a high-powered hunting rifle. He had been playing video games with the girl at her house when she told him that she was better at the game than he. Soon, the girl went outside to ride snowmobiles with other friends and Kocher, angry that his parents wouldn’t let him join them, retrieved the rifle from his father’s gun cabinet, loaded it and pointed it out the window of his home. Then, as the girl rode with a friend on a snowmobile, Kocher shot her in the back. Minutes later, as the girl lay dying in her living room, Kocher returned to the girl’s house telling another playmate, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad.”

As Kocher’s case progressed through the courts, many took the quote, coupled with the shooting, as evidence of a cold, remorseless child. Uttering that sentence would have severe repercussions for Kocher, beginning with the question of whether he would be treated as an adult by the courts.
In 2002, Duncan published a lengthy article for the Columbia Law Review that explored how expectations of displays of remorse affect how children are treated in the juvenile justice system, particularly in adjudication and sentencing. Duncan, who also holds a doctorate in political science, applied elements of psychology, sociology and literature to several case studies in the article.
As she explains in the article, “’So Young and So Untender’: Remorselessness and the Expectations of the Law,” in Pennsylvania, the State Criminal Court is responsible for all murder cases, even those involving children. However, if the suspect is a juvenile they may petition to have their case sent to juvenile court.
 Kocher’s petition to be transferred to juvenile court was denied, in part, because of his quote after the murder. After Kocher’s appeal was denied, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed the case. In its opinion, the state’s high court declared, “He appeared to show no remorse for the crime.” (Cameron Kocher eventually pleaded no contest to felony criminal homicide and, as part of a plea agreement with the local district attorney, was convicted of misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter. He was placed on probation until he turned 21.)
Duncan said, when she read about Kocher’s case in The New York Times, she was startled that a child’s apparent lack of remorse would be used against him.
But in juvenile law, Duncan writes, remorse often figures prominently at a critical junction in the process called transfer—the decision whether to treat the child as an adult and send them to adult criminal court or keep them in the juvenile justice system.
Webster’s dictionary defines remorse as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” Contrition, similarly, is defined as “feeling or showing sorrow and remorse for a sin or shortcoming.” Most adults can relate to that meaning—nobody’s perfect, after all—but at what age are we first capable of feeling remorse?
According to forensic psychiatrist Louis Kraus of the Rush Medical Center in Chicago, children do not develop a sense of remorse until they are five or six.
“Many kids have difficulty expressing a sense of remorse,” he said. “And many times that is because of trauma they have experienced.”
Kraus says the key is to understand brain development. The part of our brain that controls emotions does not finish growing until our early 20s. As a result, he says, teenagers may have a very difficult time understanding or expressing feelings of remorse.
 “It is extremely important that a mental health professional examines any child that enters the court system,” Kraus said, particularly those who do not show remorse.
“Many kids would realize, if remorse plays a big role in their sentencing, to simply say how sorry they are and try to appear remorseful,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, when they don’t say that, what is going on with this kid? A comprehensive mental health assessment would help us understand.”
Kraus adds, “The reality is, a lot of these kids have difficulty with what they say and how they say it.”
Still, displays of contrition or remorse, Duncan writes, are a “legitimate argument” for leaving the child in the juvenile justice system. Children who appear to show remorse or guilt continue to be viewed as children. But children who show none of those emotions are seen as more sophisticated and mature. They may be transferred to the adult criminal justice system, a decision that could have monumental and long-lasting effects, including the possibility of life in prison without parole.
“Sometimes kids are expected to be innocents because of the romantic archetype of the child,” Duncan said.
She added, “In juvenile cases, and juvenile cases alone, sophistication is considered a bad thing. To the degree you [the child] are sophisticated, they [the juvenile justice system] are more likely to treat you as an adult.”
But Duncan contends children are not necessarily equipped to deal with feelings of guilt and remorse. They are particularly adept at using denial to bury strong feelings. The fact that they show no remorse is, in reality, a strong indicator of their immaturity.
She points to Cameron Kocher’s quote as an example.
 “Even without any psychological training, one would think that could be an ambiguous comment,” she said. “For one thing, he seems to be trying to avoid feeling that.” It appeared to her, she said, as if Kocher was trying to bury the negative emotions he was feeling. It was a defense mechanism.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, juvenile courts were first created on the principle that children are inherently different than adults. Their brains are not fully developed, they are still learning and they are capable of rehabilitation.
Duncan explains children have a very difficult time showing remorse in cases of murder because of three undeveloped pieces of their development. The first is the “short sadness span,” a concept Martha Wolfenstein, the noted psychoanalyst and author, first put forth in the book, “Death of a Parent and Death of a President.” Wolfenstein said children are only able to endure painful emotions for very short periods of time.
“Just as their attention span is shorter than most adults,” Duncan said, “so their ability to remain in the painful affect of sadness or sorrow is not very long. When you start thinking about it, it’s kind of common sense.”
Once children cannot bear the feelings anymore, they use defense mechanisms to bury them. One of those defenses, and the second developmental piece Duncan discusses, is the tendency to use denial. Children are far more likely to use denial than adults, Duncan says. They push the painful feelings down and block them out because they are too much to bear, as Cameron Kocher seemingly did after fatally shooting his friend. His quote, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad,” appears to indicate his use of denial to block whatever feelings he was experiencing, Duncan said.
The final piece of the puzzle is that children are not experienced enough to fully understand death. They may not think of it as permanent or irreversible and do not fully grasp what has happened. “
Researchers have not yet reached a definitive answer as to the age when most children comprehend death in these three sentences,” she writes.
When the three parts are combined, we often find a child acting cold or without compassion, maybe making jokes at inappropriate times as in the case of Gina Grant who Duncan also writes about. In 1990, when Grant was 14-years-old, she murdered her mother, a violent alcoholic who had recently threatened to kill her. That morning, Grant repeatedly bashed her mother over the head with a heavy candlestick. Later, as a police officer escorted Grant in handcuffs to the restroom she joked, “Don’t worry, I don’t have any body parts in my pocket.” When the sheriff caught wind of Grant’s joke, he concluded she was a “sociopath with no conscious.”
But for many children, the outward face of their emotion may be very different than what they feel inside. Still, society expects to see certain emotions at certain times. However, people, and children especially, are not always equipped to handle intense feelings of grief or remorse immediately. Funerals are an excellent example, Duncan says.
“I find it hard to believe that, in that hour, everyone is feeling grief,” she said. Some of the mourners may indeed feel sadness and grief at that moment, but many more will experience that at another time, in a more private way, she added.
Duncan says she can identify with the struggle to show the proper emotion. The day after her father’s death, she writes in her article, when she was still a young college student, she went to her classes at Columbia University just as she would any other day. Those who knew her and knew of her father’s death looked at her strangely because she showed no signs of grief.
 “Actually, I showed no grief because I felt none, and did not for a long time,” she wrote. It was more than a year before she began to feel any strong emotions about her father’s death, and when she did they came forth like a flood.
But this was not the first time she had difficulty displaying the proper emotion.
 “Growing up,” she said, “I was never quite having the right reactions, according to my family. They always wanted me to express more feeling. And at the time I was super-intellectual and super-analytical and so I wasn’t having the right reactions, according to them.”

Her experience rendered her uniquely capable of studying what happens to children caught up in the justice system who, like herself, didn’t show the “right reaction.” But for these kids, the consequences are far more serious than a few strange looks. And Duncan is very aware that had things gone horribly wrong early in her life, a judge or jury might have been taking silent note of her own emotionless countenance.
“Fortunately,” she wrote in her matter-of-fact style, “no legal ramifications flowed from my earlier failure to exhibit sadness.”
So, Duncan asks, is it fair to decide a child should be treated as an adult in the eyes of the court when they show no remorse in the days and hours after a death when they are likely incapable of displaying that emotion?
Reading about Kocher’s case started her thinking, she said. How many times has remorse played a role? With the help of a research assistant, Duncan searched for juvenile cases in which the word “remorse” showed up. The team came across more than 200. And there could be hundreds more, Duncan said, because the search didn’t include similar words such as “contrition” or “sorrow.”
More troubling still, how many times did innocent children, who could not show remorse for a crime they did not commit, have their emotions used against them?
 “To what extent does the state have the right to demand that you share your interior space with the state?” Duncan asks. “Remorse is not a term of art like ‘malice aforethought’. We can’t just change the statutes, because there often aren’t any statutes.”
She added, “What’s particularly odd was that [the courts] never define remorse. They rarely explain why they got that impression [of the child].”
There is almost no way to know in how many cases remorse has been a determining factor. The internal rationale of judges and juries, Duncan says, is most often just that: internal. And in reality, it may be only one factor of many that contribute to a young person’s sentence.
 Duncan is currently working on a book that will delve deeper into the question of remorse and the law. The new book will expand on what she has already written but will also tackle new areas, including how remorse is used in parole hearings. Photo by John Fleming |

Friday, November 18, 2011

Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth Logo

November 17, 2011

Dear Friends, 

There are many people who have no idea that the United States sentences youth to life without parole--or that we are the only country that imposes this extreme sentence on youth. The CFSY has produced a new video to raise awareness about this unjust practice.   

You can help inform and inspire supporters by sharing our new video with your networks.  

Help build the movement by sharing this with your friends, family and colleagues, because youth should never be sentenced to die in prison.  Together, I know we can end the practice of sentencing youth to life without parole. 

In Solidarity, 

Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth Logo
Jody Kent Lavy
Director & National Coordinator
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth  


Juvenile lifers and the tragedy of certainty (guest commentary)

Published: Friday, November 18, 2011, 6:05 AM     Updated: Friday, November 18, 2011, 7:37 AM
Guest writer
By Mark Osler
I’ve spent my career prosecuting criminals, teaching criminal law, advocating reforms, and studying our criminal justice system. From all of that, I am convinced of only one absolute truth: That all of it, every bit, is tragedy. When we execute a murderer, it does not un-murder the victim, but adds to the pile of the dead. When we lock up a robber, it does not reverse a victim’s trauma, and only rarely does it restore the victim’s wealth. This is the cruel necessity of criminal law — that the best we can do is manage and try to limit the spread of tragedy.
Done well, the vocation of criminal law is emotionally exhausting for exactly this reason. One’s work is about death and loss and pain, and even when a prosecutor wins a case and obtains a fair sentence, that sentence is meted out in terms of yet more death and loss and pain. The victories are shrouded in loss.
One unfortunate effect of this bare fact is that those involved in criminal law are prone to become too certain in their views and over-committed to their work. We see this in stories like the Hank Skinner case out of Texas, where prosecutors have withheld DNA evidence from testing for years to protect their conviction. This over-commitment rankles our sensibilities, but at a human level it makes sense. Victims’ family members and prosecutors are emotionally bonded to the conviction because it is theirs -- their stake within a disordered realm of tragedy. They asked for death. Put plainly, these victims and prosecutors literally and publicly stated that they wanted someone to die. Given the stark nature of identifying someone to be killed, should we be surprised at the depth of their commitment, even in the face of rational argument?
Osler.jpgMark Osler
Professor Susan Bandes has studied the emotional over-commitment of prosecutors and victims, and sees the relationship between the two as one reason they value a conviction or tough sentence above all else. Their discussions can become a narrow feedback loop, which re-enforces the idea that a conviction and sentence must be maintained at all costs.
The discussion in Michigan of the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders is buried deep within this nest of tragedy and over-commitment. Particularly odd is the total certainty of some victims’ family members that a child of 16 will be a lethal danger the remainder of his life. How could anyone know that? There is no scientific test that predicts the future in that way. Such certainty is rooted in something deeply personal and dark, and such shrouded, private certainties should not be the basis for a system of public justice.
Reason tells us that they must be wrong—there simply is no rational basis for the idea that all 358 juvenile lifers in Michigan are beyond redemption, and that we can determine this fact before those children are old enough to vote or enter a bar or go off to college.
The truth within the tragedy is this: When we look at a 16-year-old, we can’t be sure how that kid will turn out. Perhaps he will be a danger to society the remainder of his life. Or, perhaps, he won’t be. We have to wait and see. That’s the role of parole. It allows experts to monitor the progress of the convicted to determine how they have changed, if at all.
Equally unfounded is the belief of some that the executive pardon power can take care of this issue. Clemency in the form of commutation of sentences is rarely given these days — as evidenced by the fact that President Obama has granted not a single commutation petition. Governors vary wildly in their use of this power, even when they do deign to use it. Relying on something so sparse, unstructured, and unpredictable is a poor form of justice.
I believe in public prosecution and the incapacitation of dangerous people through incarceration. However, I also believe that I can’t predict the future, especially the future of those who are not fully formed, and neither can those who are calling for the continuing vitality of juvenile life without parole. We need to care for victims and their family members, listen to them, do what is possible to make them more whole, but we should not imagine that they have the extraordinary power to predict what a 16-year-old boy will be like in 20 or 30 or 40 years. To do so is to compound tragedy unnecessarily, and that is the very result we must seek to avoid as we administer justice.
-- Mark Osler was a federal prosecutor in the Detroit area from 1995 to 2000. A Detroit and Grosse Pointe native, he graduated from Yale Law School and is now a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota. His scholarly work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections.
© 2011 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Justices Bar Life Terms for Youths Who Haven’t Killed


May 17, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers may not be locked up for life without chance of parole if they haven't killed anyone.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

''The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law,'' Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. ''This the Eighth Amendment does not permit.''

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Kennedy and the court's four liberal justices about Graham. But Roberts did not join the majority opinion as it applies to all young offenders who are locked up for crimes other than murder.

Life sentences with no chance of parole are rare and harsh for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of crimes less serious than killing, although roughly three dozen states allow for the possibility of such prison terms. Just over 100 prison inmates in the United States are serving those terms, according to data compiled by opponents of the sentences.

Those inmates are in Florida and seven other states -- California, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Carolina -- according to a Florida State University study. More than 2,000 other juveniles are serving life without parole for killing someone. Their sentences are not affected by Monday's decision.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from Monday's ruling.

Thomas criticized the majority for imposing ''its own sense of morality and retributive justice'' on state lawmakers and voters who chose to give state judges the option of life-without-parole sentences.

''I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens,'' Thomas said.

Kennedy, however, said that the high court ruling does not ensure anyone's release. ''What the state must do, however, is give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,'' Kennedy said.

Kennedy wrote the Supreme Court opinion in 2005 that ruled out the death penalty for people under 18, judging them less responsible than adults.

Monday's decision is an extension of the rationale he used then.

An expert in sentencing law said the outcome is likely to pose challenges to judges and lawyers in cases of young offenders.

For example, are extremely long sentences of 35 years to 40 years that offer no chance at parole before release constitutional?

The court's ''ruling likely will produce challenges for lawyers and lower courts to determine just whether and when other extreme prison terms are constitutionally problematic,'' said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman.

In November, the justices heard argument in two cases. The other involved Joe Sullivan, also of Florida, who was sent away for life for raping an elderly woman when he was 13. The court did not issue an opinion in Sullivan's case, but he will benefit from the Graham ruling.

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.