This week the state of Michigan Supreme Court decided, in a 4-3 decision, that the United States Supreme Court ruling heralding life without parole sentences as "cruel and unusual" does not apply retroactively in Michigan. The reason? Because they believe justice to be served, they do not believe they have the proper information to determine if they were wrong in their conviction or sentencing and they are not about to take the time and look at these cases. What's done is done and that's all there is too it.
It is also interesting to note that Attorney General Bill Shuette is running for re-election in the November, 2014 election. Coincidence? Doubtful. It is also interesting to note that Michigan elects it's Supreme Court justices, nominated by their parties, to 8 year terms. There are three (3) Michigan Supreme Court Justices who are also running for re-election. Why is this important? Because, as an incumbent, it is not politically beneficial to deal with any volatile issues or take on any large changes to existing criminal justice practices.
"We are not confident that the justice achieved by a resentencing process taking place many years after the original trial and sentencing-- many years after the victims of the homicide have become little more than historical footnotes to all but their immediate families — and presided over by a judge who can never entirely be situated like the judge who presided over the trial, can effectively replicate the justice achieved at the initial sentencing," the court's majority opinion said.
"Instead, we believe that the trial court's ability to travel back in time to assess a defendant's mental state of some 20 years earlier-- evidence of which may not even have been gathered at the time-- is limited; that the recollection of memories about aggravating and mitigating circumstances-- evidence of which may again not even have been gathered at the time-- is questionable; and that, as a result, public confidence in the integrity and accuracy of those proceedings will understandably be low."
From Michigan Live PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE. IT IS WORTH THE READ.
Resentencing for these 350 individuals SHOULD be based on their ability to be rehabilitated, on their understanding of victim and community impact caused by their crimes, on the person they will become. They HAVE that information. Most of these inmates have been in prison a long time. They have studied...or not....changed....or not.....recounted the crimes in their heads with remorse...or not. The problem is not whether or not Michigan has the information to decide if these people deserve a second chance, but that Michigan does not want to give them one.
They have chosen not to uphold the Supreme Court of the United States ruling. They have chosen not to uphold the constitution of the United States as it has been weighed and interpreted by the Supreme Court Of the U.S. In the Graham ruling and the Miller/Jackson ruling the Supreme Court ruled that Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences were unconstitutional because it was determined to be "cruel and unusual punishment". These were cases of individuals already sentenced to JLWOP and their cases were remanded to the lower courts for resentencing. It is clear that the landmark rulings handed down from our nations high court applied to those individuals already serving life sentences. These Michigan officials chose to do it their own way. Something to keep in mind with the upcoming elections. If they do their own thing concerning the constitution of the United States in this case, it could happen again.
The Colorado Supreme Court hearings have come and gone. The advocates, the news reporters and the editors have all spoken and the facts have been laid before the judges.....and we wait for the decision. The cases presented before the court were distinct and helped to cover the gamut of the issue facing Colorado.
Each one challenged the legality of juvenile life sentences, two cases have life without the possibility of parole and one case was sentenced under the 2006 Colorado law that mandates 40 years to life. It was important that this sentence be presented before the Supreme Court because it has a lengthy mandatory minimum that does not allow for mitigating circumstances, rehabilitation or judicial discretion. Many states have already jumped this hurdle and found that a lengthy mandatory minimum does not hold up under the constitutional rulings of Miller and Graham. Interestingly enough retroactivity was not even challenged.
The biggest question that was raised in these hearings was why the Colorado legislators had not addressed the sentencing law that governed these juvenile cases. The responsibility of the Supreme Court is to research and rule on the constitutionality of the laws that are in place. They cannot decide the appropriate length of a sentence, that is the responsibility of the public and the lawmakers that represent them.
This brings me to the final point. In the Supreme Court hearings, in newspaper articles, in recent case rulings, families of the victims have voiced their advocacy for greatly reduced sentences and opportunities for rehabilitation and freedom. The public at large has spoken out against mandatory sentences and harsh juvenile sentencing practices. The only ones that do not seem to be in agreement with the victims, the advocates, the public and the justices are the lawmakers themselves. We must remember that theirs is a political office with different motivation. How unfortunate for justice that those who introduce and vote on laws are not motivated to do right for rights sake....for the sake of justice, compassion and the health of the communities they live in.
Do they have the courage to do the right thing? That remains to be seen.
Here are links to articles covering the Supreme Court Rulings and also a recent case that brought freedom to a young man sentenced to life.
Will juvenile lifers get a reprieve? From Westword
Colorado Supreme Court Hears Arguments For Juvenile Sentences From The Denver Post
Man convicted as juvenile in Emily Johnson murder released from prison From The Denver Post
It is hard to believe that it has been 13 years. Thirteen years of courtrooms, appeals, trips to county jails and prisons. Countless hours full of anxiety, fear, terror and dread because of where they put my 17 year old boy and what they were accusing him of. Such a long road full of despair with only a glimmer of hope.
Every exoneree, every inmate who has won an appeal and every inmate who has faced the parole board time after time understands "trying everything". It is no different than banging your head against the wall in solitary confinement, no one hears. Somehow we get up again, we fight again, we try one more time. What happens when you have tried everything? What happens when you have filed appeal after appeal and every time you were shot down? What happens when the justice reform process seems to be moving in slow motion?
That is where we are now. That is the slow motion hell we are enduring now. We have done everything we were supposed to do. We lobbied legislators, called for medical research, gathered information and published report ,after report, after report. We have enlisted the help of human rights advocates the United Nations Campaign for the Rights of a Child and we have powerful advocacy organizations. The kids are still in prison.
Many seem to be satisfied with the fact that laws are changing that will protect future juveniles from egregious adult prison sentences. America seems to forget that there are 10,000 men/women sentenced as juveniles serving functional life sentences in adult prisons all across this nation. We took these young people and locked them away in a box, which we put in the back of the closet, buried and forgotten.
These juvenile inmates have a story to tell. All of those stories are painful, terrifying and some of them are downright outrageous. There are those sentenced as juveniles who never killed anyone, never pulled a trigger and some were not even present when crimes were committed. They are serving life or functional life sentences. There are some who were raised in poverty, abuse, neglect that was so horrific that they believed the only way out was to kill their abuser. There are those who had never been in trouble with the law in their young life, never been disciplined for fighting or violence and they lost their freedom for longer than they had been alive. There were those who had 3 minor drug infractions and they lost 20, 30, 40 years or their life.
Recently there have been articles and stories published telling of peacekeepers, judges and prosecutors who have come to realize how unjust and criminal our justice system has become. Bold men like Preston Shipp, former prosecutor for the Tennessee Attorney General's office, have come forward to advocate on behalf of juvenile's who have been sentenced to adult prisons. After meeting several juvenile offenders in a class he taught in prison he came to know these young people and the stories behind their crimes and their lives. He quit his job. Please see the video at the end of the blog for his story in his own words (thank you Campaign For The Fair Sentencing of Youth).
The Supreme Court has ruled that we have treated juveniles too harshly, states are battling trying to define what that means and still they sit in prison. We don't realize that these young men/women have spent as much, or almost as much, time in prison as they have been alive. Life to a 15 year old is 15 years. Life to a 17 year old is 17 years. They have not lived more so they cannot conceive more. STILL THEY WAIT, while everyone argues about their future, they wait; while legislators concern themselves with re-election or campaign promises, they wait; while America shakes their head but refuses to push for change, they wait.
But when you have tried everything else.......it's all you have to put your hope in.
The highest court of this nation ruled that life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional FOUR years ago for those who did not kill anyone and TWO years ago for those who committed murder yet Colorado has chosen not to address this issue. While Colorado changed the sentence that could be applied (future cases) to these crimes (40 years to life,) the mandatory sentencing structure is still viewed as unconstitutional according the the nation's high court ruling because it does not allow the sentencing court to evaluate and sentence individuals based on age, mental capacity, circumstance or other mitigating factors. Colorado continues to keep felony murder laws on the books, a law that can require a sentencing judge to impose life without parole sentences on a juvenile who was only present or knew of the crime before or after the crime was committed.
Legislation that was to address life without parole for juveniles currently serving these sentences and for those serving functional life sentences will not be introduced this term. Instead the legislators have chosen to wait and see what the Colorado Supreme court has to say on the issue. Those rulings are expected this fall.
Colorado is not the only state in this nation that has not moved to reverse the unconstitutional practice of JLWOP, there are many others. This means that there are states all across this country who are choosing to operate outside of the nation's constitution. They are choosing to break the law and they are not being held accountable while juveniles are serving illegal prison sentences in adult prisons.
There are those trailblazers that have moved to change their sentencing structure and give those who are currently serving these unconstitutional sentences a chance at parole. Washington state, West Virginia, California, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Illinois and Texas have all determined that life without parole sentences are not only illegal but that these rulings apply retroactively and have given guidelines for the parole review and release of juveniles serving life sentences. Colorado has chosen not to be among them.
In addition the UN Council released a scathing report on the human rights abuses that currently happen in the United States with the life sentences imposed on a child topping the list as well as the mass incarceration practices of this nation.
This time of year, around the world, there will be religious celebrations of redemption, of freedom from slavery and oppression and the possibility of being given the chance to start again in a new land, start again with a clean slate. These tenets of faith, whether Christian or Jewish, were meant for everyone. So we must ask ourselves when it became acceptable to throw away a life? God Cries When We Sentence Youth To Die In Prison.
If you do granny will get really sick and die before her time, your relatives will sue and raise community awareness about the horrible conditions at the facility which will eventually be closed down...while you slink away.
While this kind of crass statement truly irritates those of us who advocate for prison reform, I cannot even imagine what kind of emotion this elicits from those who work tirelessly caring for the elderly. This kind of ideology and focus died in the early 2000's and it should be left there. However, from time to time, we need to remind, re-educate and re-post the truth so that the reality of the prison conditions in America are as readily available as these misconceptions.
First of all remember that as a people we CHOOSE to remove people who have broken the law from our communities. That also means that we take them from their families, neighborhoods and support systems. Yes, in many cases that is a good thing. Many of those in conflict with the law do not come from functional environments...but some do. That also means that we remove them from having ANY potential interaction with a positive role model in a positive environment because let's face it, prison is for law breakers. We also forget that even though we have chosen to punish them by holding them in prison for extended periods of time, they will come out one day. Then what? Was the purpose of prison only to punish or were we believing that there would be some reform in there somewhere? Doesn't happen.
Which is the next false idea we will address. In American prisons we do not have education systems, we do not have drug treatment programs, mental health programs or job skills training. We spend $37 billion dollars a year in this nation on prisons and we do nothing to reform offenders. So there are no computers (for the majority of prisons), very limited libraries, (the books available are usually romantic paperbacks, mysteries or dramas) and they do not watch TV all day unless they somehow come up with over 200.00 for a 15 inch TV. You must also buy your own radio, small fan (think hot summers), stamps, envelopes and paper. In spite of these odds I have known inmates who taught themselves English, spent as much time as they could get in the small law libraries and learned to write their own appeals. I have known inmates who had the privilege of receiving outside funds for correspondence college courses and received an associates degree.
But let's get back to granny. So how do you think she would like to be held in an 8x10 room, with a room mate, with no window and certainly not one that opens? What about the toilet/sink that is prominently positioned on one end of the room with no screen or door, even a passing guard can look in, would granny be okay with that? How about having to shuffle from her room and down the hall to the gang showers? How about the lock downs that happen 4 times per day where every inmate must be counted? How about the physical searches that take place whenever you leave your cell and go to any other location in the prison? How about the strip searches? How about the inspections where they come in and toss granny's room and take the extra ketchup packs or apples she has stashed? How about the fact that granny can have visitors on specified days but she will be over 100 plus miles from her home town. Then lets talk about the handcuffs, leg shackles, razor wire and all the rules, which if violated, get her a stint in solitary.
When granny get's sick she can see the facility nurse and if it is more serious than that, they can consult with a doctor via the web and if she needs treatment she better be able to last for a few hours while they get her treatment. I have known of 1000's of inmates who's repeated cries of pain went unheeded and they died in their cells. I know of 1000's who have conditions that are the result of poor nutrition or malnutrition and still others who have developed vision problems inherent to inmates because their eyes become used to seeing only short distances. So granny's old age would probably end very quickly.
There is also the mental health issues and trauma associated with confinement. Recent documented case study has now become a "labeled' disorder for conditions found in inmates who have been subjected to long term incarceration, solitary confinement or institutional abuse. Inmates are subjected to dehumanizing circumstances, violent outbreaks, rape and oppression. The same environmental stimuli associated with POW's and in war. This disorder is called Post Incarceration Syndrome.
Yes it is true, these people have come in conflict with the law. They are sent to prison to pay a penance for their crimes, learn their lesson and come out as stronger and more productive members of our communities. This is what we believe. We also believe that they enjoy the same kinds of comforts that we do in our homes. It is hard for us to imagine that we send them to a place that actually worsens their plight and ability to be productive citizens. Granny would not survive and if granny lived in this kind of institution we would shut it down.
What is the answer? Many western nations already know and have already implemented the changes. Short prison sentences that are in facilities designed and staffed to deliver quick and intense rehabilitation for successful re-entry with a focus on family, relationships and community life. It works, it doesn't cost nearly as much money, there is a much lower recidivism rate, communities heal and families grow stronger. With the money and time we have left we could actually take care of granny and the poor, our kids and maybe even education. Can everyone be rehabilitated? No but in spite of the more lenient sentencing of his day, Charles Manson is still in prison.
Lyrics by Bono (from All that You Can't Leave Behind by U2)
Seems appropriately written for all those serving time in prison. What they need the most.
Grace, She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
Grace, it's the name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything
Grace, she got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She's got the time to talk
She treads outside of karma
She treads outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace find beauty in everything
Grace, she carries the world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips; between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
out of ugly things
Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
As the United States begins grappling with the ugly truth of juvenile offenders who have been serving time in adult prisons, there are some stories that are blatant in-your-face examples of what realities are ahead.
Ian Manuel was sentenced to Life Without The Possibility of Parole for a crime committed at the age of 13. At 14 he entered an adult prison facility and within a year he was in solitary confinement where he has been living for the last two decades.
He has been held in solitary confinement since he was 14 years old! What were we thinking! Twenty years in solitary confinement for a kid!?! Read the story here
Warning: This blog post deals with a very sensitive and violent topic.
One of the worst secrets of the American Prison Industrial Complex in the sexual exploitation of female inmates. In recent months there have been very large settlements awarded to female inmates who have brought civil lawsuits against states and state department of corrections.
In Michigan a team of lawyers brought a class action lawsuit against the state and Michigan's Department of Corrections. After 12 years, fierce resistance from the state and several attempts by the state to side-step the accusations, the team won a landmark 30 million dollar settlement and the jury assigned to that case apologized on behalf of the citizens of Michigan for the hostile sexual environment that existed for female prisoners.
In Colorado, Denver Women's Correction Facility reported the highest rate of women prisoners (10.7% of the prison population) who claim to have been sexually assaulted or endured sexual misconduct. In 2011 a class action lawsuit was brought against DWCF for sexual assault but the case later fell apart as the CDOC began to tear apart the allegations (more on this in a moment). In 2008 an inmate brought a lawsuit in federal court alleging sexual assault by a guard where she was awarded 1.3 million dollars. The guard was fired, and he received a 60 day sentence. Because the 2011 class action was brought against the department at the time of the 1.3 million dollar award, the department did it's best to discredit the women involved in the latest class action. Unfortunately the department was wrong. Many of those women at DWCF had been housed at Colorado Women's Correctional Facility where they had been raped. When the facility closed, the women were all transferred to DWCF and the guard(s) were sent elsewhere. According to the women, one day he showed up at DWCF and it started all over again.
This is a quote from the article which is linked to the photo posted above: "UPDATED January 23rd, 2014…Alabama Prison Was House of Horrors for Female Inmates, Feds Say. A Justice Department investigation accuses Alabama officials of violating women’s rights by fostering an environment of rampant sexual abuse at the state’s Tutwiler Prison, where inmates “universally fear for their safety” and officers allegedly forced women to engage in sex acts just to obtain basic sanitary supplies.The nearly 900 women incarcerated at the maximum-security prison live “in a toxic environment with repeated and open sexual behavior,” the Justice Department said in announcing its findings today into the Wetumpka, Ala., facility."
In every facility where the issue of sexual assault is finally brought to the light of day the question is always asked, "Why didn't you report this before." The answer is simple. Those who report sexual assault and abuse in prisons are deprived of visiting privileges, have their personal property taken from them, have their phone calls taken and/or are placed in solitary confinement indefinitely. In most cases where rape and assault have been reported there is an internal investigation. IF it is necessary a guard will be transferred to another facility but rarely is a guard charged with rape.
We are confronted with the issue of the protection of women and girls everywhere in the world today. Whether it is the issue of sex-trafficking, women's rights in third word countries or archaic betrothal practices that lead to the deaths of young girls. As American's we are righteously angry at the abhorrent treatment of women around the world but we turn a blind eye to the egregious treatment of women and girls in our own country. Remember that juvenile facilities and prisons for women are staffed by men. Remember that men are given charge over women in very private settings such as showering and even going to the bathroom. Remember that they have complete control of their movements and move them about in handcuffs. Remember that although they have broken the law, they are still mothers, daughters and sisters. They are supposed to be in prison to correct their behavior not to be degraded, humiliated and violated. It is time for us to demand prison accountability, transparency and reform. They will come home one day and we want them to be better members of our communities not broken women.
Yesterday we posted an article concerning the need for movement towards changing criminal justice policies for juveniles. There were many who commented on the NYT article that supported the need for changes in charging and sentencing juveniles that would be more age appropriate and would focus on rehabilitation, reform and the future release of these errant juveniles.
Many would say that the reform of juvenile criminal justice practices would be against the wishes of victims advocates and that the families of victims should be the greatest concern. First, we must remember that the reason for court systems and judges is to insure that every accused person is treated fairly and remove vengeance from the hand of the wronged party. This is for two reasons. The first is to protect the person who has been wronged from committing a crime themselves out of pain and anger. The second is to insure that the best interest of the community is served, the errant individual is caused to repay for the harm done.
In my years as a juvenile justice advocate I have come in contact with very angry victims advocates, however, they are the minority. Most would prefer to be able to grieve their loss and learn how to move on with their lives, putting the pieces back together. It is generally not the victim that desires to be drawn back into court for every appeal, sentence modification or parole hearing, it is the district attorney's that use the suffering of victims to sway the opinions of the courts. I have wittnessed it time and again.
Only in recent years, as victims have felt compelled and protected have they begun to speak about the road to forgiveness. It is a road. All of us who have lost a significant relationship, gone through the death of a family member, lost a job, a child or a home know that grief is a process, a process that begins with anger and disbelief. The stories of the women and families who have forgiven others for taking the life of a child or a son or daughter are amazing people. There are many stories that have ended in unlikely frienships. To get a glimpse of this please read Unlikely Advocates For Teen Killers.
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