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More States Need to Halt Prosecution of Youth as Adults

This month marks one year since the passage of Proposition 57, a California ballot measure that prohibited district attorneys from filing charges against youth as young as 14 directly in adult criminal court through a practice known as “direct file.” The initiative passed with 64 percent of the vote, signaling strong popular support for curtailing prosecutorial authority and expanding access to the rehabilitative benefits of the juvenile justice system.

While juvenile courts are premised on rehabilitation and required to provide young people with education, mental health and other age-appropriate services, the adult criminal justice system offers no such guarantee. Youth placed in adult courtrooms are exposed to the trauma of stigmatizing, high-stakes proceedings and may face lengthy adult sentences devoid of rehabilitative opportunities. Furthermore, youth prosecuted and convicted as adults are saddled with lifelong criminal records, severely limiting access to education, housing and employment, and potentially impacting their right to vote or their immigration status.

Research supports the notion that adult court prosecution is fundamentally inappropriate for young people. Studies comparing youth tried in juvenile courts to those processed as adults find that criminal prosecution is associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and elevated risk of rearrest after release. Though proponents of these policies claim they are necessary to deter serious crime, research has linked direct file, transfer and waiver policies to increased levels of youth violence.

Though the burden of these laws falls most heavily on youth relegated to criminal courts, the effects also filter into the juvenile justice system, disadvantaging young people who retain their status as juveniles. In states that permit prosecutors to exercise discretion over transfer petitions or the filing of adult charges, the very threat of criminal prosecution can be used to exact unfavorable plea agreements, exposing young people, unnecessarily, to additional juvenile justice system contact.

Fortunately, decadeslong reductions in youth crime have allowed the pendulum of juvenile justice policymaking to swing towards common-sense reforms that honor youthfulness and emphasize treatment over punishment. In California, Proposition 57 ensures that youth are no longer subject to unchecked prosecutorial authority and cannot be criminally prosecuted without first receiving a transfer hearing in juvenile court.

All California youth are now presumed suitable for the treatment and care of the juvenile court, and prosecutors carry the burden of proving otherwise. By law, California juvenile court judges must look beyond the seriousness of a young person’s offense and consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including their social history, mental health, level of participation in the offense and success with prior interventions, when determining whether they can be transferred to adult criminal court. By abolishing direct file and establishing a higher standard of proof for transferring youth to the adult criminal justice system, California is expected to prosecute many fewer youth as adults in the coming years.  

Several other states have introduced reforms aimed at correcting longstanding overreliance on punitive, criminal sanctions for young people. Recently, New York and North Carolina used their budget processes to expand the age bounds of their juvenile justice systems to ensure that 16- and 17-year-old youth can no longer be automatically placed in adult courtrooms.

In Indiana, state law now permits youth to be processed in juvenile court for any remaining lesser charges if they are tried and acquitted for a more serious offense in adult criminal court. This prevents prosecutors from gaining unfettered access to criminal prosecution through overcharging. In 2016, the Vermont Legislature granted original jurisdiction to the court’s Family Division in all youth misdemeanor cases and in select youth felony cases, ensuring that most young people are processed in juvenile rather than adult criminal court.

Though incremental, these reforms have the potential to lessen criminal justice system involvement for thousands of youth, bringing the U.S. one step closer to ending the unjust prosecution of youth as adults and delivering on the full rehabilitative promise of the juvenile justice system.

Misguided and reactionary policymaking eroded the core values and protections of the juvenile justice system throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yet relics of these policies remain, contrasting starkly with current realities. State lawmakers must heed contemporary research, record-low rates of youth crime and increasing public support for progressive justice reforms, and act now to halt the inhumane treatment of youth as adults.

Maureen Washburn is a member of the policy and communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

The Long Wait: With Little Hope Left of Parole, Inmates Look to the Courts for Release

Injustice Watch

This is part of The Long Wait, a series exploring the Illinois Prisoner Review Board’s process for deciding on parole for a group of inmates who remain in prison for serious crimes committed before 1978.

The crime would send shockwaves through the Chicago police department for decades.

On a summer day in 1970, two Chicago Police officers assigned to the “walk and talk” team, meant to improve relations between police and the community at the Cabrini-Green public housing projects, were walking across a field when gunfire erupted. Surrounded by the high-rise buildings, snipers fired on the men, killing them both.

Police quickly built a case against two young men, who they said were members of street gangs. Johnnie Veal, then 17, and George Knights, then 23, were both charged with two counts of murder and tried together. While there was physical evidence presented against Knights, none directly tied Veal to the crime. Both insisted they were not guilty.

A court report from Johnnie Veal’s murders case from Aug. 14, 1970.

Both were convicted and sentenced to terms of 100 to 199 years in prison with the opportunity for parole. That has left them among the 121 men and one woman at the mercy of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which has consistently rejected their efforts to seek parole.

The board’s decisions, an Injustice Watch examination found, are often inconsistent and arbitrary. Veal is among a number of the prisoners who, finding the door to parole shut year after year, have turned to the courts in a desperate effort to win freedom.

Veal filed a petition last year in Cook County Circuit Court contending that because the parole board is not meaningfully considering his release, he has been illegally sentenced to life without parole — a sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court said cannot be automatically imposed under the Constitution on 17-year-olds. Earlier this year, as the board again turned away a parole request from Knights, board chairman Craig Findley commented, “I just don’t see how George Knights or Johnnie Veal could ever be released.”

Veal’s plea was rejected by Cook County Circuit Judge Rickey Jones in July 2016. He is appealing.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the board has “complete discretion” in deciding parole, and that unlike other states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, its decisions are not generally reviewable. The court noted that parole board decisions are “often based on subjective factors and predictions rather than objective factors.”

Prisoners in Illinois can only turn to the courts if the board fails to hold required parole hearings — whatever the outcome — or if the board acts in an unconstitutional way, such as denying parole based on a defendant’s race.

While evidence of a defendant’s innocence is critical in court, it tends to work against prisoners seeking parole. Prisoners’ refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the crime — even if they insist they are innocent — is often held against them in board deliberations.

In Veal’s case, a fingerprint of his co-defendant, Knights, was discovered on a box of bullets in a high-rise’s incinerator room after the shooting. Police traced the bullets to a store in Indiana, where Knights signed the purchase slip for the ammunition, according to court records.

A photo of the Cabrini-Green public housing projects in 2003.

But there was no physical evidence against Veal, according to court records, and no witnesses said they saw Veal commit the crime. The case against him was built on the word of several witnesses who testified that Veal made statements before and after the murders indicating he was involved.

Three boys, also gang members, were among the key witnesses against him. They each recanted after the trial.

When Veal’s last parole request came before the board in 2014, one factor board members considered was his lack of remorse for the crimes, board minutes show. His supporters tried to justify Veal’s response, saying, “You cannot ask a man to admit guilt for something he did not do,” the minutes show.

The board’s repeated rejection of his parole spurred Veal to try the courthouse. “Time is of the essence,” he said in an interview from Hill Correctional Center. “Tomorrow’s not promised to me, so I’m trying to get the best I can get, to try to get to where I’m supposed to be with family and loved ones.”

In another police killing case, Ronnie Carrasquillo, who was sentenced in 1978 for shooting Chicago police officer Terrence Loftus, also filed a petition in the Cook County Circuit Court stating that he has no real chance at parole because the victim in his case was a policeman. Like Veal, Carrasquillo, who had turned 18 months before the crime, contends that the board’s routine denials have resulted in an automatic life sentence without parole.

Carrasquillo also argues in a separate petition that his hefty sentence was unfairly imposed by a corrupt judge to deflect the sharp public criticism he received months earlier after acquitting mob hitman Harry Aleman in a nonjury trial. At a September hearing on that petition, Carrasquillo’s trial attorney, Glenn Seiden, testified that an FBI agent later made comments to him suggesting a link between those cases.

More than a decade after Carrasquillo was convicted, Wilson committed suicide after the FBI confronted him about evidence that he had taken a $10,000 bribe to acquit the mob hitman. “Only a corrupt judge would have sentenced a teen-aged boy under these circumstances to a draconian sentence of 200-600 years,” Carrasquillo’s petition states.

While Carrasquillo and Veal, among other prisoners, try to overturn their verdicts arguing they were unjustly convicted or sentenced, such evidence carries little weight in their separate proceedings before the Prisoner Review Board.

Legally, the board is required to focus solely on whether an inmate is an acceptable risk for release, said the board’s legal counsel, Jason Sweat. Because inmates have already gone through trial and sentencing, speculating on the quality of trial evidence, Sweat said, is not up for consideration.

Claims of innocence have not always been an obstacle to parole.

In late 2005, the board paroled Duffie Clark, who was convicted in 1971 of slaying two youth on Chicago’s South Side. Clark’s attorney, Dana Orr Williams, said in prior years Clark had not received any votes in favor of his parole. He only was released once she presented information sowing doubt in the evidence of his guilt.

Williams said she thinks her argument and the questions she raised about Clark’s guilt resonated with the board members who voted in his favor. Parole was granted despite his refusal to be contrite, she said, which “did not go over well” with all members of the board. Williams said Clark “wasn’t going to cop to something he didn’t do.”

In other cases, board members cite that lack of contrition as they deny parole. Carrasquillo has long contended he did not intend to shoot the police officer, who was in plainclothes at the time, causing then-board member Angela Blackman-Donovan to comment that Carrasquillo “won’t own up to it,” according to meeting minutes from 2013. She then voted against his parole.

Old photographs show Ronnie Carrasquillo with his family during prison visits. They sit on the mantle in the home of Deyra Mercado, Carrasquillo’s half-sister.

Sitting in a visiting room recently in Dixon Correctional Center, Carrasquillo discussed his plans for a life outside prison. If he is ever released, he would be starting a life when most others his age would be nearing retirement.

He recognizes the struggle to win over the board members.

He has more faith, he said, in being released through the courts than the parole board. “They see me as a lifer,” he said of the board members. “It’s that simple.”

Injustice Watch co-director Rob Warden, who co-authored the book “Greylord,” is being called as an expert to testify about me=dia coverage of Judge Frank Wilson, on behalf of Carrasquillo’s petition. As a result Warden played no role in reporting or editing this series.

This article was written by and originally ran in Injustice Watch.

Violent Videogames May Alter Players’ Brains Over Time, Research Shows

In the continuing debate over the dangers of violent videogames, new research shows the brain function of gamers is actually altered in as little as one week of play. Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine found a direct relationship between playing videogames and subsequent changes to portions of the brain associated with cognitive function and emotional control, according to Science Daily.

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. Researchers randomly assigned 28 young men aged 18 to 29 into two groups of 14. The young men had little previous exposure to violent video games. One group was given a shooting game and told to play 10 hours over one week and not play at all in the second week. The second group refrained from playing any video games the entire two weeks. Both groups of young men were given functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans before and after the two-week period.

Following the two-week period, the young men who played video games showed less activation in regions of the brain assigned to emotional and cognitive function.

"These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning," said Dr. Yang Wang, an assistant research professor at Indiana University. "These effects may translate into behavioral changes over longer periods of game play."

Prior to this study there has been little scientific evidence that videogames have long-term effects on the brain function of players.

Photo by Flickr | goodrob13

MSNBC Documentary Gives a Voice to Kids Sentenced as Adults

There are many imperfections in the nation’s criminal justice system. So many, it’s hard to know where to start.

Take your pick: The public defender system; death row; life without parole or the whole idea of housing convicts together in hopes of rehabilitating them.

Poke around a bit. You’ll find some disturbing problems. None, however, will shake you to the core like seeing a child doing hard time behind bars, serving a sentence twice as long as he is old.

This is what you get in “Young Kids, Hard Time,” an MSNBC documentary premiering Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST.

Here is a film that shins a light on a very dark side of the criminal justice system; the more than 200,000 kids who are tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults. Sometimes busted in their early teens, these children remain in the juvenile system until they reach the age of 18. This is when they are transferred to adult population facilities where they serve the rest of their sentence with some of the country's most brutal and hardened criminals.

“Young Kids, Hard Time” shows what life is like for these incarcerated young people and examines the possible long-term impact on society.

It is a tough and complicated subject, by we, and this project, are in good hands. Calamari Productions has spent more than a decade creating programming that focuses on matters of child welfare and juvenile justice. The company has won more than a dozen awards for documentaries and other productions that they've created on behalf of children.

In “Young Kids, Hard Time,” we watch as cameras go inside Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Ind. In the facility's Youth Incarceration unit there are 53 kids who were sentenced as adults.

Among them is 15 year-old Colt Lundy, who is serving a 30- year sentence for the murder of his stepfather.

Lundy, who never had any brushes with the law prior to the murder, tells us, “I spent five months in county, and if they would have let me out then, that would've been enough of a wake-up call for me.”

The first thing you notice about this boy is the fear in his wide eyes that accompany his seemingly prepubescent voice. The heinous nature of his crime has not erased the innocence that marks the face of anyone his age.

As these young people tell their stories, it becomes clear that some had problems that went ignored long before they ever reached Wabash Valley. It is also clear they will continue to be ignored, right through to the end of their sentence when they are released into society often without counseling and rehabilitation.

“Young Kids, Hard Time” stays focused.  It never veers off into the details of the cases of the youth offenders. It shows viewers that -- regardless of the magnitude of the crime that has been committed -- the issue is children and how they are treated in the justice system.