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Some State Laws Slow Resentencings Despite Miller v. Alabama Decision

While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.

Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.

But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.

For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.

“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.

Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.

So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.

“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.

Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.

But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.

That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.

And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”

“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.

Kinder has served nearly 33 years of a life-without-parole sentence for a killing committed when he was 17.

Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.

Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.

In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”

Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.

“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”

Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.

“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.

“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”

Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”

Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.  

“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.

For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.

“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”  


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‘Crown Heights’: Cautionary True Tale of Youth’s Unjust Sentence, Exonerated By Stubborn Friend

“You never know how sacred your freedom is until it’s jeopardized.”

That’s the driving sentiment behind “Crown Heights,” a new film that tells a tale of friendship and perseverance in the face of a miscarriage of justice.

The drama is the story of Colin Warner, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who was arrested for a 1980 killing in New York that he played no part in. He ended up spending two decades behind bars before being freed — largely due to the efforts of his childhood friend Carl “KC” King, who ran down witnesses and lobbied lawyers to take on Warner’s case.

“This was a guy who grew up in prison,” said the film’s director, Matt Ruskin. “He was an 18-year-old kid when he was charged with a murder he had nothing to do with, and he became an adult in one of the harshest environments imaginable.”  

Warner was released in 2001 and won a $2.7 million settlement from New York authorities for their wrongful prosecution. He now lives quietly near Atlanta with his wife and daughter.

“My case which was so exceptional and strange is you had one person who literally put his life on hold to assist me,” Warner said. “There are not too many people alive like that.”

He’s now a property owner and a landlord, but he says he still struggles to adjust to life as a free man.

“I don’t believe you can imagine what 21 years in prison can do to someone,” he said.

Prison “was more mental than physical … I got to work trying to maintain my sanity in a madhouse, because that’s what prison was.”

When he got out, he said, “My wife had to hold my hand. My friends had to hold my hand the first couple of years I was here.

“I am still getting back into society and I try to keep my life as simple as possible,” he said. He saw a psychiatrist for a while, “but I thought I did not receive what I needed. The person you’re speaking to now was basically put together by himself.”

Lakeith Stanfield and Natalie Paul star in "Crown Heights," the story of an 18-year-old sent to prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Shorter sentence for actual gunman

The killing that put Warner in prison happened in April 1980, in Brooklyn. Warner — played by actor Lakeith Stanfield, from the recent film “Get Out” and the television show “Atlanta” — had a prior arrest for carrying a pistol, and he was mistakenly identified by a witness from a book of mug shots. Police then leaned on other witnesses to match that shaky ID.

Even though detectives confirmed a different person shot the victim, Mario Hamilton, prosecutors kept charges against Warner as an accomplice. Both suspects were tried together and convicted even after a key witness changed his testimony on the stand.

Warner was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was released in 2001 after a judge threw out his convictions. The actual gunman, who was under 18 at the time, got nine years and was paroled in 1989.

It took two years for his case to come to trial — two years in which Warner was held without bail at New York’s lockup on Rikers Island. Knowing he was innocent, Warner struggled to adjust to prison: He spent about four of his first 10 years in solitary confinement. That disciplinary record and his refusal to admit guilt and express remorse for Hamilton’s killing cost him his first shot at parole.

Ruskin said a turning point came with the death of Warner’s grandmother, who had helped raise him in Trinidad.

“He said he realized that time was slipping away, and that life was continuing on, even though his had come to a grinding halt,” the director said. “He became much more active not only in fighting for his freedom, but he made a very conscious decision to be present and live his life wherever he was at that moment, rather than fighting and avoidance and what he said was letting things get away from him.”

Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) faces a life behind bars for a killing he didn't commit in "Crown Heights," based on Warner's real-life story.

Drama based on hard truth

The film is scheduled to hit theaters Aug. 25. Though it is a dramatization of Warner’s story, it draws heavily on source documents and interviews with the participants. For instance, when Warner is convicted — despite a prosecution witness changing his story on the stand and a total lack of physical evidence — the judge says, “Is this verdict true? I don’t pretend to know.” That line came straight from the trial transcripts, Ruskin said.

Both King, played by former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, and Warner were involved in shaping the script from the beginning. Ruskin said he recorded dozens of hours of interviews with them about their experiences, and they had several lengthy but less formal conversations during production.

“They had an open invite while we were shooting,” he said. “While I was writing the script, they spent countless hours talking with me about their experiences.”

Warner said he still feels like he has the mark of an ex-convict on him, and he tries to teach his 10-year-old daughter the importance of making good decisions. Nor has he fully escaped tragedy in his new life: His 13-year-old son drowned two years ago on the Fourth of July. He always tries to help people, “because without help, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”

Meanwhile, King is still in New York, working as a process server — a job he took to help meet lawyers who could help his friend. Ruskin said King is still trying to help people like Warner, “and there is no shortage of cases that he’s become aware of.”

“He has always continued to do this type of work since Colin’s exoneration,” Ruskin said. 

The killing for which Warner was imprisoned was one of more than 1,800 in New York that year. It was part of a nationwide surge in violence that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s, leaving police, prosecutors and politicians scrambling.

“It was just clearing the cases you had on your desk and doing whatever you had to do to get convictions,” Ruskin said. “On the one hand, it was the height of the crime wave in New York, and I think these people were completely overburdened. On the other hand, this kind of misconduct was completely inexcusable and led to situations like there where you have an innocent kid spending 20 years of his adult life in prison.”

Those pressures also overwhelmed the courts: Warner had a series of public defenders at different hearings before his 1982 trial, “so there was no continuity in his defense until the trial started, Ruskin said. “You had people who weren’t familiar with the details of his case, didn’t believe in his innocence or just weren’t present.”  

Potential return to old policies

Ruskin’s film marks the passage of time with politicians like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Ed Koch and state Gov. George Pataki vowing to get tough on crime. A generation later, many of their successors have been rethinking those policies, particularly the harsh minimum sentences imposed on drug offenders.

But under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved to roll back decisions made by his predecessors to de-emphasize nonviolent drug crimes and avoid charges that would expose nonviolent offenders to some of the mandatory minimum terms imposed at the height of the crime wave.

Ruskin said the policies of the past mean there likely are more cases like Warner’s — and going back to them will likely mean more in the future.

“When the focus is on punishment rather than justice, and when you’re looking at statistics rather than the health of a community, I think it’s inevitable that there will be casualties of an aggressive and inhumane system,” he said.

Failure of Public, Political Will Threatens Progress on Child Welfare, Casey warns

Amid the charts and tables of this year’s Kids Count Data Book is a stark warning.

The gains in children’s health, education and overall well-being since the last recession may be in jeopardy as “a huge failure of public and political will” saps support for policies that have helped produce those results, the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation states in its annual compilation of child-welfare statistics.

“Erasing racial inequities, creating pathways to opportunity and making sound investments in our youth will benefit all Americans,” the report states. And with about one in five children still living in poverty, improvement will take time, while policymakers “want expenditures to show immediate returns.”

“Frederick Douglass famously said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ His prescient words need to be taken seriously — and acted upon — in 2017,” the authors add. “The consequences of not investing wisely in children will be higher costs down the road. The Annie E. Casey Foundation urges policymakers to make wise public investments and to take a long view.”

The Baltimore-based Casey Foundation promotes research and programs aimed at improving the lives of children who are facing poor prospects for education, health and jobs. And Laura Speer, the organization’s associate director for policy reform and advocacy and one of the authors of this year’s document, said federal and state programs have been responsible for one of the biggest successes in the report -- near-universal health insurance coverage for children.

Between the Children’s Health Insurance Program enacted in the late 1990s and the expansion of state Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act since 2010, 95 percent of children now have health insurance, the report notes.

“That is the most ever, and it’s something we should recognize as accomplishment of our collective will,” Speer said. Improving health coverage “is a good thing both for the kids and for their families,” and government stepped in when the private sector was pulling back. But a withdrawal of public support for those programs, like the push by congressional Republicans and the Trump administration to roll back the ACA, is likely to weaken efforts to end the widespread disparities that remain, she said.

And though the data shows many families haven’t fully recovered from the steep recession of 2007-2009, there are fewer children living in poverty, more parents have jobs and more families can afford a good place to live. A pair of federal tax breaks – the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit – boosted more than 5 million children above the poverty line, and states like California and South Carolina have added similar measure to their tax codes.

“Those are things that can really make a difference for families,” she said. “Our goal is to really try to lift up where the public sector is stepping in at any level of government.”

Another bright spot documented in the report is that teen birth rates have plummeted since 1990, falling from 60 to 22 births per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19. Teens are taking advantage of more available birth control and putting off sexual activity, bringing that statistic to a historic low. That’s good both for parents and children -- teen moms are less likely to complete their education, while their children are more likely to become teen moms themselves.

[Related: Focus on Graduation Pays Off, but Strong Efforts Still Needed, Nonprofit Leaders Say]

Speer said that ongoing plunge has been surprising, as many observers expected it to level off by now.

“There’s still room for improvement,” she said. “We’re still higher than most other countries in the world that are economically similar to us. But to me, that’s a really important trend that continues to be going in a good direction.”

But at 21 percent, the United States still has one of the highest child poverty rates among developed nations. About one in seven children are living in high-poverty neighborhoods, particularly in the South and Southwest, and 29 percent of parents lacked a stable job. The stubborn persistence of child poverty has been one of the most disappointing trends in this year’s report, Speer said.

“It impacts kids’ well-being on so many different levels for such a long period of time, into adulthood,” she said. Also resisting improvement is the percentage of children living in single-parent households: Though the statistic has come under some scrutiny in an age of changing family structures, kids in single-family homes are more likely to be worse off economically.

“That’s another one that is difficult, that has really stayed very much the same year by year,” Speer said. “It hasn’t gone up a lot in the last decade, but it’s been very flat.”

Nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders aren’t reading at grade level, and nearly 70 percent of eighth-graders can’t do eighth-grade math -- a figure that’s gotten worse since 2009. More than half of 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t in pre-kindergarten programs, which have been shown to narrow the gap between poor children and more affluent peers. And even though high school graduation rates have hit an all-time high, African-American, Latino and native American children still fall behind or drop out at higher rates than their white classmates.

The results can be seen in diminished prosperity, higher medical costs and more money spent on courts and prisons – a tab the Casey Foundation estimated at $500 billion a year.

Geographically, the top-ranked state for children’s well-being was New Hampshire, where the child poverty rate was 11 percent and 96 percent of teens were in school or at least had jobs. Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa and Minnesota rounded out the top five.

The lowest-ranked was Mississippi, one of the country’s poorest states, where child poverty was 31 percent and education and health outcomes were near the bottom of the pile. New Mexico, Louisiana, Nevada and Arizona were ranked just above Mississippi.

“There certainly are a lot of different stories in those rankings,” Speer said. Many of the places that scored the best are not only doing better economically, but have made “really long-term investments in infrastructure that supports kids and families.”

“There’s not really one thing you can point to that tells the whole story, but the economy is part of it, and public investment is part of it.”   

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Combatting Obesity: After-School Programs Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity

Gault at 50: Conference to Offer Tips for ‘Front-line’ Juvenile Lawyers

You could call it the obscene phone call heard 'round the world.

The May 1967 Supreme Court ruling that threw out Gerald Gault’s six-year commitment for lewd remarks over the telephone has led to half a century of juvenile justice reform. And how to keep that momentum going for another half-century will be the focus when lawyers and other advocates for children facing lockup convene in Atlanta June 2 and 3.

Organizers hope to send them home with “some new tricks in their bag,” said Whitney Untiedt, co-director of the Southern Juvenile Defender Center, which is hosting the event. The two-day conference at Emory University in Atlanta will cover public policy debates, such as “raise the age” bills being debated in several states, as well as nuts-and-bolts tips for the courtroom.

“All of our participants are front-line child lawyers,” said Untiedt, a Miami-based attorney. “We want them to walk away feeling empowered to go back to their own courtrooms, where they may be the only juvenile lawyer in their small rural district.”

In re Gault came about after a juvenile court judge in Arizona ordered the 15-year-old boy to the state reformatory until his 21st birthday for an offense that would have left an adult facing no more than two months in jail and a $50 fine. In the landmark decision, Justice Abe Fortas found that “safeguards available to adults were discarded in Gerald's case.”

A cop hauled Gault into custody without telling his parents, who had to scramble to find their son. He wasn’t read his rights, and he was questioned without his lawyer or a parent present. He was found delinquent based on a statement given during that process. No sworn testimony was taken during proceedings. And under state law, there was no right to appeal a juvenile commitment.

Nearly three years after his arrest, the Supreme Court threw out the case, finding that children had the right to a lawyer and to remain silent and that authorities needed to provide written notice of proceedings. That’s been the bedrock of juvenile law ever since.

But ensuring that kids facing custody get due process has been tougher in practice. The National Juvenile Defender Center — Untiedt’s organization is a regional affiliate — warned recently that many teens aren’t getting proper representation a half-century after Gault. Only 11 states provide all youths with defense attorneys, and some charge fees that run as high as $1,000 for a “free” lawyer, the organization reported. None guarantee that a lawyer will be present when they’re questioned by police — and in 43 states, a child can waive his or her right to a lawyer without any attorney’s advice.

Whitney Untiedt

Untiedt said securing those rights were particularly tough during what she called “the ‘superpredator’ years” — the crackdown that accompanied the spike in violent crime that peaked around 1990.

“We started to really see the criminalization of childhood — children walking into courtrooms with shackles on their legs, being shackled to one another in chain gangs, being denied counsel not necessarily purposefully, but because there was a denial of funding for enough lawyers to represent children at the levels that they need to be represented,” she said.

But today, Untiedt said, experts believe that children “are fundamentally different than adults.”

“Our real goal in choosing this particular focus for this year’s summit is to talk about advancing that philosophy throughout the juvenile justice system,” she said.

The science of adolescent brain development suggests that the part of the brain that guides rational choice — and inhibits impulsive, emotional decisions — doesn’t fully form until the late teens or early 20s. Those findings underpinned the series of Supreme Court decisions since 2005 that struck down the death penalty for juveniles and eliminated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for teen killers.

Other states, including California, have restricted prosecutors’ ability to charge juveniles as adults in violent crimes without a judge’s review. And the costs of incarceration have made even many conservatives reconsider tough-on-crime policies of earlier years, Untiedt said.

“There certainly is and always will be a strong law-and-order philosophy that takes a very punitive approach to the juvenile and the adult justice system,” she said. But there’s an increasing recognition that juvenile justice needs to “get back to this rehabilitative lens,” she said.

“Let’s focus on helping these children to develop into adults who are going to be contributors to the larger society, rather than detractors from the larger society,” she said. “I think ultimately that’s the goal.”


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Evan Miller Offers Apology As Resentencing Hearing Wraps

MOULTON, Alabama — Evan Miller rose to apologize to the family of his victim “for stealing the joy from your lives” as a three-day resentencing hearing ended today.

Miller is seeking a chance at eventual release five years after his case prompted the Supreme Court to strike down automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles.

He was 14 when he killed neighbor Cole Cannon in 2003, and the statement he read this afternoon was the first acknowledgment of guilt Cannon’s family has heard.

“Your dad, Cole Cannon, didn’t deserve what happened to him,” Miller said. He added, “I’m sorry for this whole ordeal. I’m sorry for taking a huge part of your family.”

But saying that “isn’t enough,” he continued. “I want to be more. I want to do more than just an apology. To be truly sorry, you have to make amends.” He expressed hope that the “chain of pain and hatred” could be broken, “and I can make amends.  

“I’m sorry once again for stealing the joy from your lives,” he said.

Miller is asking an Alabama judge to revisit his sentence, which was automatically applied after his conviction on capital murder charges in 2006. He delivered his statement after lawyers for the Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the Supreme Court, presented their final witnesses. He didn’t give it under oath or subject to cross-examination — and Cannon’s family called it late and weak.

“That could have been done almost 14 years ago,” Cannon’s daughter, Candy Cheatham, told reporters afterward. “You can say words and not mean them, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Cheatham said Miller’s apology “is going to look good for him to say now, when he’s looking at a chance for a judge to give him a different sentence.”

“I don’t feel he accepted responsibility … I think the apology was coached, rehearsed and insincere.”

Miller, now 28, and another teen robbed Cannon and beat him with a baseball bat before they set his trailer ablaze and left him to die in the fire. Much of the testimony this week recounted Miller’s upbringing in a family rife with physical beatings, drug abuse and neglect.

The final witness, Dr. George Davis, connected that background to the development of the adolescent brain — the neuroscience that underpinned the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama and its predecessors.

Davis, the chief of psychiatry for New Mexico’s child welfare agency, said the part of the brain that guides rational decision-making doesn’t reach “dependable, functional capacity” until someone is in their late teens or early 20s. When complete, that frontal lobe and its prefrontal cortex inhibits impulsive, emotional reactions.

“You’ll get an inhibition of emotional overreaction,” he said. “You will get the capacity to plan ahead, to foresee consequences, to strategize about the best way to get something accomplished. The frontal lobe will also do things like take different kinds of facts or factors into account, compare them and decide between them.”

A 14-year-old “is still at the beginning of that process,” Davis said. And that development is complicated by neglect, abuse and drugs, which shadowed Miller’s entire life before the 2003 killing.

Under cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney questioned why Miller ended up a killer while his older brother and sister didn’t. Davis said children from the same family often react differently to the same circumstances, but boys tend to respond much more aggressively than girls. And while Miller ultimately killed a man, Davis said he saw no pattern of violence from his behavior before his arrest — and saw signs of improvement in the records when he was taken away from his family, both in a 17-month stint in foster care and after the killing.

“There are times at which I looked at Evan’s record and thought that incarcerating him probably saved his life,” Davis said.

The Miller decision barred only the automatic application of life without parole for juveniles, which means Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig could pronounce the same sentence after this week’s proceedings. State prosecutors argued Miller earned that original sentence, and it should be reaffirmed.

Craig said he won’t issue a decision this week and will need some time to review the extensive documents and reports introduced as evidence. But he pledged, “I will do my best to render a just and appropriate verdict.”

Earlier, Miller’s lawyers put on a series of witnesses to demonstrate that he should get a chance at eventual release.

Miller’s onetime foster mother, Robin Brown, testified that Miller “understands what he did and that he had to be punished for it.”

“He’s hopeful and still young and has a lot of life possibly left in him, and he’s expressed a desire to do something good with it,” Brown said. When she mentioned that one day Miller might show some “forgiveness of himself,” Cannon’s relatives exchanged disbelieving looks on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Brown’s daughter, Tiffani Alldredge, testified Tuesday that Miller, his sister and brother were the only foster kids with whom her family kept in touch. Under cross-examination, Brown said she didn’t recall a fight in which Miller choked her then-preteen daughter or comments to the family’s social workers that she was ready to “give up” on all three children. She said the fight would have been documented as a matter of routine, “and of course that would have been addressed.”

A childhood friend, Patrick Hitt, described the Miller kids’ parental supervision as “nonexistent.” The family frequently was short of food, lacked power and once nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning by trying to use a charcoal grill to heat the house indoors — a story Miller’s sister, Aubrey Goldstein, had recounted earlier.

He should have stayed in foster care,” Hitt said. “In foster care, I wasn’t going to see him every day, but I knew he was being taken care of … I think if he was in foster care, he would still be out today and doing OK.”

‘A mischievous child’

Hope Berryman, a social worker who saw Miller regularly in the months before the killing, said Miller had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity, conduct and substance abuse disorders. She called him intelligent, but less mature than other kids his age.

Both Miller and his mother would be visibly intoxicated in some of their meetings, and Miller had “explosive” emotional outbursts — but she was “shocked and disappointed” when she heard her client had been charged with capital murder.

“I had never seen any indication that Evan would have done what was done that night, and I felt disappointed that I had not been able to be more of a catalyst for change in his life,” Berryman said.

Prosecutors have tried to punch holes in the defense by pointing out Miller had racked up a series of violations in his decade-plus in prison. They include discipline for possession of contraband items like paint, cigars and cellphones, which Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney said Miller once used to send a nude video of himself to a contact outside the walls.

But David Wise, Miller’s former warden, said Miller wasn’t one of his big concerns at the maximum-security St. Clair lockup, outside Birmingham.

“Although it’s not perfect, it’s my opinion that a lot of his disciplinary history is on the lines of a mischievous child in high school,” Wise said. While Miller broke some rules, “which is not good,” he wasn’t involved in violent incidents — which Wise called “a way of life” among the prison’s roughly 1,200 inmates.

Miller is housed in an “honor dorm” for prisoners who have exhibited good behavior and have been on a maintenance detail. Barry Black, who teaches welding to inmates at St. Clair, said Miller “always has a good attitude” and is “always respectful to me and other people.”

While inmates serving life without parole aren’t eligible to take vocational classes in Alabama prisons, Black said he knew Miller because he has been on a maintenance detail at the prison, and Black has been teaching him to weld on the side.

“He came into this system at a young age. I really don’t know how he’s turned out as well as he has, to be honest with you,” Black said. He said he’s never before testified on behalf of an inmate, but “I feel like Evan deserves another chance.”

This story has been updated.


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Family of Evan Miller and His Murder Victim Testify in Resentencing

MOULTON, Alabama —In his decade-plus behind bars, teen killer Evan Miller has grown into an intelligent man hoping to one day help others in danger of repeating his mistakes, his sister testified today.

Aubrey Miller Goldstein told wrenching stories of growing up with drug-addicted parents, seemingly random beatings and a string of evictions from roach-ridden homes as Miller’s lawyers tried to win him a chance at parole one day.

“He’s remarkably well-balanced. Intelligent. Poetic,” Goldstein said. “He’s a deep thinker. He’s reflective, contemplative — and remorseful.

“He wants good to come from this,” she added. “He wants to be able to help others, to stop it before it happens. To help troubled teens, troubled youth. He would do very well.”

Miller, now 28, was the marquee name on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. He was 14 when he killed a neighbor, Cole Cannon, robbing the man, setting his mobile home on fire and leaving him for dead.

He’s back before an Alabama court for resentencing this week — a painful reprise of events that have riven two families. Prosecutors hoping to keep Miller locked up for good have been sketching a portrait of an unrepentant, manipulative inmate unchanged by his years behind bars. Cannon’s family members aren’t buying any talk of repentance.

“It’s as if I keep being slapped in the face with constant, unbearable grief,” Cannon’s youngest daughter, Jodie Fuller, testified Monday.

Violence, filth, horror stories

In more than two hours of testimony, Goldstein said her father, David Miller, was a truck driver who’d spend most of the week on the road. He’d come home seething, “almost looking for something to get angry about,” and beat them with a leather belt with a heavy buckle — an accessory Goldstein said her father wore as a weapon. The boys — younger brother Evan and older brother John — occasionally got kicked with his steel-toed boots, too.

“It could happen every day. It could happen more than once a day,” she said.

Goldstein said she has a finger that doesn’t move properly due to damage to one of her knuckles from that belt. Evan, the youngest, had a seemingly permanent welt across one buttock, “the perfect shape of a belt.” Their father once killed a kitten that had urinated on the kitchen floor, slamming it against a wall and forcing his children to watch as it died.

Goldstein recounted these stories in a soft, even tone, struggling for composure only when she recounted the constant filth and roaches. The family left cleaning to her when she was barely out of kindergarten.

Miller sat tight-lipped during the proceedings, dressed in gray-and-white prison stripes. He grimaced occasionally as his sister testified, glancing occasionally at the spectators’ benches.

The family moved from house to house, racking up a chain of evictions across several north Alabama towns. Child welfare agencies in four counties had files on the family — documents that Miller’s lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative, which won the Supreme Court decision on his behalf, presented to the judge to buttress Goldstein’s testimony. The cops got called several times, including once when older brother John took refuge at a neighbor’s house and the neighbor faced their father down with a shotgun to protect him, Goldstein said.

[Related articles: ‘Get Tough,’ Then Another Positive Supreme Court Decision Drops]

But their mother repeatedly passed on pressing charges, even when her husband threatened her with a gun. Goldstein recounted hiding behind a police car after calling officers to their home in that incident, only to have the officer tell her there was nothing he could do. She was 11. Meanwhile, she said, their mother told the children horror stories about foster care to keep them from telling the truth about what was happening at home.

Foster care

The children finally were taken away when her father bruised her eye the night before Goldstein and her younger brother went to a summer camp run by child welfare authorities. They spent 17 months with a foster family – a stretch that saw the children get basics like clothes and regular meals, as well as structure and rational discipline.

“The Millers let us love them,” said Tiffani Alldredge, whose parents took in the children. “Out of all the foster siblings we ever had, they were the only ones who let us love them and loved us back.”

However, on cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney pointed to reports that Evan Miller once tried to choke Alldredge during a fight over a basketball game, and his foster parents noted in reports that the boy “lies so much I can’t believe him.” Alldredge said she didn’t remember the childhood fight.

Prosecutors also introduced Miller’s prison disciplinary record, which listed infractions for jailhouse tattoos and possession of a contraband cell phone.

While her kids were in foster care, Suzi Miller left her husband. She got supervised visits with the children, and eventually got custody of them. They went to live with her in a mobile home park where Goldstein said drug use was rampant and the home was “chaos.”

Evan had flourished in foster care and didn’t want to go back. And soon, everyone in the family was drinking, smoking pot or using speed. And that put them on a collision course with Cannon, who was trying to turn around his own struggle with alcoholism, his children testified. He’d had to sign his home over to their mother to keep the bank from taking it, leaving him renting a trailer in a mobile home park next to the Millers.

On the witness stand Monday, Cannon’s two daughters and son recounted how they’ve struggled to move on since their father’s killing — particularly since the Supreme Court tossed out Miller’s original sentence nearly five years ago, they said.

“All I have heard from EJI is, ‘Evan was just a child.’ Well, so was I,” Fuller said.

Fuller, sister Candy Cheatham and brother Sandy Cannon told of homecoming pageants, weddings and birthdays at which their father was absent, grandchildren asking about the “Pawpaw Cole” they’ll never meet.

“He has a name,” Cheatham said, looking directly at Miller. “In many documents, in many statements, in many hearings, his name has not been mentioned ... but his name was Cole Cannon. He was a person.”

Fuller said her father’s death sent her into a spiral of depression and substance abuse. But she recovered and became a police officer, and said Miller could have made similar choices. Instead, she said, her father’s killer hasn’t shown any remorse, “and I don’t think he ever will.”

“I truly believe with his lack of remorse that he will kill again if he’s ever released from prison,” Fuller said.

More related articles:

The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls

New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

Two New Probation Chiefs for Los Angeles Will Find Full Plate


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Teen Behind Landmark Juvenile Decision Back Before Judge to Be Resentenced

MOULTON, Alabama — Hundreds of others have received new sentences since the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole terms for juveniles.

Now, the man whose name is on that decision gets his chance.

Evan Miller goes back before an Alabama judge for what’s expected to be a multiday resentencing hearing Monday. Miller was 14 when he and a friend killed and robbed neighbor Cole Cannon in a haze of drugs and alcohol in 2003. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down his sentence in a landmark 2012 decision, and his lawyers will argue this week that he should have a chance at parole someday.

In addition to recounting his youth and a long history of abuse, neglect and depression, attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative — which took Miller’s case to the Supreme Court — are expected to bring evidence about the science of brain development, which underpinned the justices’ ruling. Scientists now believe the parts of the adolescent brain that control emotional, risk-taking behavior aren’t fully developed until after the teenage years.

“The result of this developmental process means that adolescents will not think like or process like adults will until probably their mid-20s,” said Robert Kinscherff, a forensic scientist and attorney at the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience — a joint venture of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“In midadolescence, they are wired for maximum stimulation and learning at exactly the same time that their ability to perceive risk and apply it to their own situation is at its least well-developed,” he said.

Scientists had “a pretty good ballpark idea” of that when Miller went to prison. “But the decade since, we’ve become much more precise in describing the process of development and correlating them with specific neural networks that are in the process of developing through adolescence,” Kinscherff said.

The justices cited that evidence in finding that teenagers shouldn’t automatically get locked away for life. But Kinscherff said lower courts have applied those findings unevenly. In some states, judges have struck down tough mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles based on what’s now known about brain development, while others have been slow to resentence teens eligible for reduced terms under the Miller v. Alabama decision and a 2016 follow-up that made it retroactive.

[Related: The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls]

A jury in Moulton convicted Miller of capital murder in 2006. Under Alabama law, the jury has a choice of one of two penalties for that crime: death, or life without parole. But since the Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty for juveniles before his case came to trial, jurors had only one option for Miller.

In striking down Miller’s sentence, the justices didn’t eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders completely — they just barred its automatic application. So Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig could hand down the same term at the end of this week’s proceeding. But Miller’s lawyers say the state must show their now 28-year-old client is “irreparably corrupt” with no prospect of rehabilitation before he can do so.

In a November hearing, Craig said he “is not going to trivially send anyone to prison for the remainder of their life.”

Prosecutors from the Alabama attorney general’s office, meanwhile, will be arguing that Miller deserved every bit of that original sentence.

A jury in Moulton found Miller guilty of beating, robbing and killing the 52-year-old Cannon in 2006. Cannon was left for dead in his mobile home, which Miller and another teen set ablaze to cover up the crime. An accomplice took a plea deal that got him life with a chance at parole, testifying that he and Miller smoked marijuana and played drinking games with Cannon until the man passed out — then they beat him with a baseball bat, and lifted his wallet and baseball card collection.

By the time he got to Cannon’s trailer, Miller had survived years of physical abuse and four suicide attempts, according to testimony in his trial. He’d been placed in foster care at age 10, only to be returned to the custody of his mother, who was struggling with alcohol and drugs herself.

Much of that painful history is expected to be revisited this week, with family members on both sides of the case once again sitting on the courthouse benches.

“It’s going to be a very prominent hearing even and a very visible decision, no matter what the judge says,” Kinscherff said.

More related articles:

New Poll Shows Widespread Support for Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

Righting the Wrong: Michael Johnson

Two New Probation Chiefs for Los Angeles Will Find Full Plate


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

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Meet the ‘Monsters:’ Documentary Looks at California Juvenile Debate

One’s kicking himself over an unrequited lifelong crush.

One dreams of being a Navy SEAL.

Another leads you on a mocking tour of his new home.

They’d seem like typical teenage boys — if they weren’t awaiting trial for violent crimes.

Juan Gamez, Antonio Hernandez and Jarad Nava are the youthful offenders at the heart of “They Call Us Monsters,” a new documentary that follows their lives in a Los Angeles juvenile detention center. They’re held in a special wing of the lockup reserved for teens who will be standing trial as adults. All three are looking at terms that could keep them behind bars for decades.

Their stories are framed by their participation in a screenwriting class taught by Gabriel Cowan, one of the documentary’s producers — and by the debate among California lawmakers over a bill that would grant young offenders with lengthy terms a chance at parole after 15 years. Supporters of that measure cited new science about brain development in teenagers that found the part of the brain that regulates judgment, decision-making and impulse control doesn’t fully form until a person is in their 20s.

“The entire area of the brain that pertains to culpability and consequence and long-term thinking and impulsivity — everything that comes together in the commission of a crime — is not developed,” the film’s director, Ben Lear, told JJIE.

“It’s not an excuse by any means. These people have to do their time. They have to pay for what they did,” Lear said. “But because you do not know who they will turn out to be when they are 25, 26 or 27, I feel as a society that we do have the obligation to provide them an opportunity to earn a second chance, based on that fact.”

photo_-_jail_exterior

Juan and Jarad were 16 when they were arrested; Antonio was 14. Juan was charged with murder, while Jarad and Antonio were accused of attempted murder.

Juan’s older brother drew him into gang life as a child in their native El Salvador, before they moved to California. Antonio, a methamphetamine addict, recounts seeing a man shot to death in front of him when he was 8, but insists he’s not traumatized: “I guess you do kind of get used to it.” And when he was 12, Jarad found his stepfather trying to stab himself to death — an unsuccessful attempt that nonetheless resulted in the breakup of his family.

While the film includes some touching moments, like Juan’s brief visits with his toddler son and a goodbye call to the girl he never expects to see again, it doesn’t flinch from its subjects’ culpability. Jarad’s victim describes waking up paralyzed, and the film shows her trying to navigate her apartment in a wheelchair. Juan says, “I really was a monster,” and the film includes surveillance video of the killing that put him behind bars. Antonio admits he feels no remorse for his actions, and his promising new start sours soon after his release.

“You can look at that and say, ‘OK, they’re obviously sociopaths.’ But what I would encourage people to do is peel a layer off, go a little bit deeper and entertain the idea that maybe they’re temporarily sociopaths,” Lear said. “Maybe that journey toward remorse and responsibility is different for everyone. Maybe it takes 10 years. Maybe it takes 15 years. Maybe it takes a lifetime.”

photo_-_feet-chains_pic

Lear, the son of television producer and liberal activist Norman Lear, was drawn to the issue after he was invited to sit in on one of the scriptwriting classes run by InsideOUT Writers, a Los Angeles-based organization that teaches creative writing to kids in juvenile lockups. He went as research for a script, expecting to meet the kind of scary characters he’d seen in the movies — but instead, he found “a classroom full of kids.”

“When a kid arrives there, a lot of his baggage is temporarily stripped away,” Lear said. “He’s no longer actively gangbanging. It’s a lot harder for him to find drugs. So most of the time, it’s easier for them to just be kids when they’re locked up.”

That inspired him to make the documentary, which uses a montage of news reports to illustrate the late 20th century spike in juvenile crime and the punitive response that followed — a broad expansion in the offenses and ages for which a teen could stand trial as an adult. By 2010, about 250,000 teens were being prosecuted in adult courts every year, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice, which opposes the practice.

In the past few years, however, officials in many states and in Washington, D.C., have been rethinking the clampdown. In California, the parole bill featured in “Monsters” ultimately passed in 2013. That state’s legislature also eliminated the chance of life-without-parole sentences for all but a few juvenile offenders and made more young inmates eligible for early parole.photo_-_pic_3

And in 2016, state voters approved a ballot measure that takes the decision on whether a teen should stand trial as an adult away from prosecutors and puts it in the hands of a juvenile court judge. Juvenile court judges had made that decision until 2000, when a referendum gave prosecutors the power to try teens as adults for certain serious crimes.

For Lear, who now sits on the InsideOUT Writers advisory board, the shift has been heartening. When California advocates began pushing to scale back punishments for offenders like those in his film, Lear said, it seemed hopeless. But each successive measure has passed “with more and more support.”

“California seems to be well on the right path, but there are a lot of states that are much further behind in that conversation,” he said. “I want the film to reach those legislative buildings, those communities, to start a conversation around this population and how it should be treated.”


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

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‘Raise the Age’ Gets New Look in Connecticut

Connecticut’s governor has launched a new attempt at a groundbreaking juvenile justice reform effort this year, pushing to raise the age at which most young offenders go before an adult court to 21.

Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed the same plan in 2016, only to see it stall in the state legislature. But if he succeeds this year, Connecticut would be the first to raise the age beyond 18 for all but the most serious offenses, such as murder, assault with a firearm and rape.

laelchesterr12-140x150
Lael Chester

“There’s no doubt this is a cutting-edge proposal,” said Lael Chester, the co-author of a report by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government that’s recommending a step-by-step program for making that change.

A state legislative committee that oversees juvenile justice urged Connecticut officials Thursday to move deliberately if the plan gets adopted, phasing in the changes over a four and a half-year period — but it didn’t sign off on any particular bill.

In recent years, several states have raised the age at which teenagers are routinely prosecuted as adults to 18. Connecticut was one of them, raising its age from 16 to 18. But no state has gone beyond 18, the age at which Americans are generally considered legal adults with the right to vote, join the armed forces, carry a credit card.  

In their report, Chester and co-author Vincent Schiraldi characterize people between 18 and 21 as “emerging adults.” Recent advances in the understanding of adolescent brain development and psychology suggest young adults should get the juvenile justice system’s opportunities for rehabilitation and second chances.

Currently, those emerging adults have the highest recidivism rates of any group in the criminal justice system, Chester said. The report found that young adults prosecuted in adult courts were between 34 and 77 percent more likely to be arrested again, and more likely to be arrested for a more violent crime than teens who stayed in the juvenile system.

“We have historically just lumped together 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds in the adult system without really thinking about it,” she said. “And yet we now know from research that that emerging adult population is a distinct developmental stage. They’re somewhere between childhood and fully mature, independent adulthood.

“We know from developmental psychology and neurobiology that the brain is still developing,” she said. “That’s what moved a lot of states and moved the U.S. Supreme Court to find that they have a greater protection from the Constitution.”

William Carbone
William Carbone

An adviser to the legislative committee, William Carbone, director of the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven, said, “It will involve shifting of resources, it will involve technical law changes and it will involve some budgetary implications. So if the governor and the legislature set this as our goal, it gives us a full year to put operational plans together to make this happen successfully.”

Last year’s proposal faltered in the state’s General Assembly, even as other criminal justice reform measures advanced. This year, Malloy’s Democratic allies control the House of Representatives, while the Senate is split evenly with Republicans at 18-18.

Malloy's office did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday. Senate Republican leader Len Fasano's office said he had no comment on the new proposal yet.

At least three other states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Illinois — are considering similar proposals, but none have acted yet, Chester said.

Raising the age for adult prosecutions from 18 to 21 will keep about 10,000 Connecticut offenders a year in the juvenile system, Chester and Schiraldi estimated. That’s about 10 percent of the state’s arrests.

And since most people “age out” of crime, keeping offenders in a system that’s designed to provide close supervision, educational programs and counseling is likely to provide better outcomes than sentencing them to hard time in the adult system, Chester said.

“One the biggest differences between the adult system and the juvenile system is a criminal record,” she said. “Once you have an adult record, you have that for life, and that is going to affect your job, your ability to get a mortgage, to get student loans and your ability to attend schools. I think the idea with the governor’s proposal is we can hold them accountable, we can provide them with the appropriate services, and when they mature out of this — which we all want them to do, and which most of them will do — we want them to be able to lead a productive, healthy life.”

There’s no budget estimate included in the Harvard report. But Chester said much of what the state is discussing could be accomplished by shifting existing resources from the adult to the juvenile system. Though juvenile systems usually cost more per head than adult prisons, the short-term costs can be offset by diverting more offenders to probation or other alternative programs, where she said about a third of Connecticut juvenile cases are resolved.

“That is enormous cost savings. You’re getting the results you want without having to kick in all the legal process,” Chester said. “There is no equivalent on the adult side.”

 

Private Lockups May Prosper Under Trump Due to Predictions of More Deportations

Petty Officer Lou Nieves and Petty Officer Richard Hernandez escort an illegal immigrant found on board a fishing boat located in a Brownsville, Texas shrimp basin. Illegal immigrants will often be hired as security by the owners while they are in port in exchange for room and board on the boats.
Petty Officer Lou Nieves and Petty Officer Richard Hernandez escort an illegal immigrant found on board a fishing boat located in a Brownsville, Texas shrimp basin. Illegal immigrants will often be hired as security by the owners while they are in port in exchange for room and board on the boats.

The private prison industry may end up being one of the winners under the incoming Trump administration, though it’s not clear how or when the new administration will act.

Stocks of for-profit prison operators tumbled after the U.S. Department of Justice announced in August that it would no longer house federal inmates in private lockups. But they rebounded after the Electoral College upset in November by Donald Trump, who campaigned on pledges to crack down on crime and step up deportations of undocumented immigrants — many of whom are held in detention centers run by for-profit operators.

It could be a shot in the arm for an industry that has been looking for new markets as inmate populations shrink and critics have successfully pushed back against corporate-run prisons in several states.

“The initial signs on changes in immigration enforcement and other policy issues indicate a substantial shift from the Obama administration to the incoming president-elect’s administration, and I think that tracks with the increase in stock for private prison companies,” said Nicole D. Porter, the advocacy director for The Sentencing Project.

Nearly 15,000 teens — about 29 percent of the U.S. juvenile detention population — were housed in private facilities, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

But unlike the adult system, many of the juvenile lockups are operated by nonprofit agencies, and the trend in juvenile justice is toward fewer out-of-home placements for young offenders, said Porter, whose Washington-based nonprofit organization advocates for sentencing reform.

“There’s some support for ensuring juvenile providers who are guided by evidence-based practices can provide services to justice-involved youth, even if those are nongovernmental entities,” she said. But the current momentum is behind closing “juvenile facilities, period — whether they’re public or private.”

Private facilities not as good: administration

About 131,000 state and federal inmates were housed in private prisons in 2014, according to Justice Department statistics — about 9 percent of the country’s prison population. More than 90,000 of those were in the 30 states that used private facilities; the rest were federal inmates.

In announcing the shift away from private lockups in the federal system, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said those facilities “served an important role during a difficult period.” The U.S. Bureau of Prisons saw its inmate population balloon eightfold under harsh drug-sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and ’90s, and contracts with private lockups were needed to manage that boom. But Yates said that with headcounts shrinking, they’re no longer needed — and private lockups never lived up to their billing.

“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of lnspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote in August. “The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource — and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.”

Colorado model

Trump’s presidential transition team did not respond to requests for comment, and the campaign offered little insight into his thinking about the issue. But in March, he told a questioner at a town hall-style forum on MSNBC that private prisons might provide needed reforms.

“I think a lot of people are really looking at Colorado for prison reform,” he said. “As you know, our prison system is a disaster, it's complete disaster all over the country.” After a digression, he added, “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.”

Those comments drew a puzzled response from Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

It’s “really hard to know what he’s talking about,” Donner told JJIE. Colorado has been closing for-profit prisons and some public lockups as the state’s inmate population has shrunk, she said.

“They just don’t need them anymore,” she said.

Tennessee-based CCA, which recently rebranded itself CoreCivic, and Florida-based GEO Group are among the largest private prison companies in the United States. Stock in both companies plunged following the August announcement from Justice, but have rebounded sharply since Election Day.

GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said the company couldn’t comment on any meetings with the Trump team. But he said GEO looks forward to working with the new administration as it has under both Democratic and Republican leaders. And he defended the industry’s record, arguing the Justice Department’s inspector-general found private prisons “are at least as equally safe, secure, and humane as publicly run facilities and often more so.”

Deportations could be good for contractors

While the Justice Department is moving away from housing convicted criminals in private prisons, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) still holds about two-thirds of the roughly 400,000 people awaiting deportation from the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, is weighing whether to continue using private contractors. A recent report by a Homeland Security advisory committee initially recommended continuing the practice with tougher oversight — but in early December, committee members rejected that conclusion and endorsed a dissenting call to phase out privately run detention.

Paez called the advisory committee-endorsed dissent “completely unfounded” and said GEO had a long history of providing “culturally responsive, safe, and humane environments” for people facing deportation.

"We can't speculate about future policy priorities, but we stand by our steadfast belief that through public-private partnerships, we can continue to provide the safest, most secure and humane facilities to meet the residential, non-penal needs of the residents in ICE's care,” he said.

Since the cornerstone of Trump’s campaign was a pledge to expel illegal immigrants, it’s likely the committee’s decision will be revisited, said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, publisher of the immigration law blog Crimmigration.com.  

“I think we can fully expect his administration will at least begin from a presumption that private prison corporations have a significant role to play in immigration enforcement policies,” said Garcia Hernandez, who also teaches law at the University of Denver. “Whether that means we will expand the number of prison beds that we have under President Obama, or whether we simply see a continued heavy reliance by the Department of Homeland Security on corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group remains to be seen. But I think the future is bright for private prisons under a Trump administration.”

CoreCivic didn’t respond to requests for comment. The company got a break before the election when Homeland Security renewed contracts with the company to house detainees at its facilities in Eloy, Arizona, and Dilley, Texas — where the company built and runs the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center.

Advocates for the migrant families housed there have been trying to get that lockup and another run by GEO Group in Texas shut down, arguing they aren’t properly licensed to care for children; a state judge recently agreed.

Garcia Hernandez said that given the advisers the Trump administration has consulted so far, it’s reasonable to expect more reliance on private detention.

“Trump is surrounding himself with people like [Attorney General pick] Jeff Sessions and [Kansas Secretary of State] Kris Kobach, who are immigration hardliners, who tend to view ever-harsher immigration enforcement policies as the only acceptable method,” he said. Even though the Obama administration has been deporting record numbers of undocumented migrants, Trump will likely be urged “to expand what is a historically unprecedented hardline policy regarding immigration detention.”

Porter said there may be an opportunity to raise “alternative perspectives” with the president-elect, but she said reform advocates aren’t hopeful about the prospects.

“The climate around privatization is going to change dramatically, and is going to regress dramatically,” she said.