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Community Organizing Is ‘the Job I Wanted But Didn’t Know Existed’

DeJuan Bland is community organizer for MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength) in Detroit. OST Hub editor Sara Hill asked him a series of questions about his work.

Q: Tell me about how you started in the field.

DeJuan Bland

A: Every summer when I was off from college, I worked with Kendell Barry, at Developing K.I.D.S. It was a six-week summer program. We did academic work, team building, community service. It was my job to create the curriculum for the summer. I graduated college and didn’t want to get a job punching a clock. Two weeks after I graduated, MOSES and the national network Gamaliel held a race and power summit. I found out what community organizing was, and it was the job I wanted but didn’t know existed. One of the nights at the summit they had an “action” that dramatized what was happening at the summit. I offered to write a play about it, a reimagining of “Waiting for Godot,” transposed to America of today, showing the structural and institutional racism, and how it impacts children and youth of color. They gave me the microphone to speak at the end of the play. I got a couple of job offers after that. MOSES, a faith-based community organizing agency in Detroit was one of the offers, and I took it because I wanted to work in the city.

Q: What have you learned that you’d wish you learned from the start of your career as a youth worker?

A: I’m learning that it’s a co-learning process. I struggle with being pegged as an exceptional person, so whenever I feel like I’m not doing the right thing, it can cause paralysis. What helps is remembering that everything is messy, but without effort, nothing gets done. The second recommendation is to trust in the things I’m good at. There’s a reason that I’m here. It helps me when working with young people, that it’s OK to feel like you don’t have it all together.

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen at your program? In the field?

A: I don’t know if it’s a change, but I’m becoming more aware of an intergenerational divide, and how it needs to be addressed. More seasoned people in the social justice field, they have the experience, and they say, “Just listen to me, and we’ll be all right,” and the young people don’t have space. Conversely, if the youth have the space, they don’t want to hear about the experience and wisdom of more seasoned social justice community leaders. I feel that there needs to be co-creation. The two are siloed, there’s separation and division between people even in one organization.

Q: How have you handled those changes?

A: I have been building relationships across the divide. This is key. The next step is for the leaders, including youth and older people, to build relationships. One thing we did recently is a poetry and politics event. We talk about meaningful things going on in our lives and community, and we use art to drive that conversation. The last couple of sessions have been intentionally intergenerational. That has helped specifically with the campaign that I’m running around juvenile justice reform, which is to stop young people from getting arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors. We were in a space in the campaign where the young people were doing all the work, but their schedule is difficult, they have school, other obligations. Having the older people there to step in the gap when young people can’t be there is helping, and it’s not in a way that they’re taking over the campaign. They’re helping the young generation.

Q: How do you battle burnout, stay resilient?

A: I do a lot of things, music and poetry. I go out and perform [my music and poetry] — that gives me energy. I box, that gives me energy as well. On the job, I ground myself and remind myself about the meaning of the work, why it matters to me.

Q: What are your dreams?

A: I have an end goal. I’m still piecing together what that looks like. I want my writing to be published and studied. I want my life to mean something beyond the time that I’m actually living. I’m a minister, I use everything in my life for ministry. I want to do work that changes how we see the juvenile justice system, not just Detroit and Michigan, but the whole country. There’s a story in the Bible, in the Book of Acts in the New Testament. The disciples are approaching a city, and the officials in the city describe them as the “people who are turning the world upside down.” Along with the people I work with, I want to be described that way, particularly regarding the justice system.

Q: What’s some advice you would give someone entering the field?

A: That this work will have you wrestling with yourself and all the things you didn’t think you had to deal with in yourself. And that’s OK.

It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

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.

Plummeting Youth Crime Demands New Solutions, Thinking

In 1990, in California’s 15 largest cities, 373 youths (in a population ages 10 to 17 of 850,000) were arrested for homicide. In 2015, in those same cities (now with 1.1 million youth), 21 youths were arrested for homicide — a rate decline of 94 percent.

Over the last 25 years, gun killings of teenagers in California’s urban centers fell nearly 80 percent; in New York City, they declined by 90 percent.

Such impossible decreases look like typos, but they’re real. They are repeated in city after city and state after state, where growing, racially diversifying youth populations accompany astonishing reductions in crime and other serious problems.

The millennial generation, forecast to bring “adolescent superpredators,” instead brought a stunning anti-crime revolution that challenges long-held assumptions.

From 1990 to 2016, juvenile arrest rates declined by 73 percent nationally, including large declines in all reporting states. Arrests for violent offenses plunged by two-thirds. Homicide arrests of youth decreased from nearly 4,000 per year in the early 1990s to under 900 in 2016. Twenty of the 35 reporting states – including California, Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan – saw youth homicide arrests plunge 75 percent or more.

In California, a harbinger of national trends, the justice system is rapidly disappearing from young lives. As the youth population grew by one million from 1980 to 2016 and became increasingly diverse, juvenile arrests plummeted from 286,000 to 63,000. All offenses — felony, misdemeanor and status — have fallen to all-time lows. California’s state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice, has seen its budget cut 70 percent since 1995 as youth incarceration dropped 93 percent and eight of 11 state detention facilities closed. In juvenile halls and camps, more than 7,000 beds lie empty.

No one knows why these hugely encouraging trends are happening. Instead, we’re seeing more recycled "teenage brain” and “adolescent risk" nonsense of the type that has proven devastatingly wrong and perpetrated destructive policies. Like a Greek play with predetermined lines marching to inevitable tragedy, we let outmoded agendas and prejudices stifle honest debate again and again.


Figure 1. Declining rates of criminal arrests of youth (under age 18) by state, 2016 v 1996 (includes all violent, property, drug, sex, other felonies and misdemeanors, and status offenses).

Source:  FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1995, 2016.  Notes: This figure includes the 35 states with reports to UCR for both 1996 and 2016. Arrest totals are adjusted by the proportion of jurisdictions reporting to UCR by state and year. U.S. Bureau of the Census data for populations ages 10-17 are used to calculate rates.


Even though 21 percent of teens live in poverty compared to 11 percent of middle-agers, more Californians age 40-49 (186,000 in 2015) and 50-59 (128,000) are now getting arrested for felonies and misdemeanors than those under age 20 (123,000 in 2015; 105,000 in 2016). Adolescents can no longer be called “crime-prone.” Crime rates among 18- to 19-year-olds resemble those of 35-year-olds; age 15-17 is like 50.

It’s a whole new world. How are authorities responding to the youth crime revolution’s exciting new opportunities? The prevailing view pretends the decadeslong plummet in crime by youth isn’t happening; that crime, guns and violence remain youthful stupidities. Reading major reports and commentaries these days is like retreating 20, 50, even 100 years into the past.

As teenage crime falls to historic lows, backwards-looking interests are reviving 19th-century myths that “teenage brains are neurologically wired" and “biologically driven" to crime and risk as some "new science." Malarkey. Real scientific reviews show that the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) underlying “brain science” cannot be reliably interpreted or replicated, invalidating thousands of studies.

The premature embrace of poorly grounded psychological and biological notions has the potential to harmfully expand youth and young adult detention by justifying investment in new and “better” lock-ups. For example, California hired a private firm (Campbell Consulting) to rehash developmental clichés and recommend yet another set of “therapeutic” prisons while ignoring young people’s massive crime drop.

Demeaning all 60 million youth and young adults as brain-miswired criminals in order to win lenient treatment for the dwindling few who commit serious crimes isn’t reform — it’s demagoguery. Self-flatteries that “adolescents are not like adults,” while great fun at conference workshops, dodge the uncomfortable reality that crime by youth is a function of adult-imposed poverty, abuse and its trauma sequelae, and troubled caretakers, not being young.

The few commentators who admit real-life trends typically credit their local initiative or pet solution. However, we now see there was no unique Minneapolis gun-violence reduction or “Boston Miracle.” (Nor can my group take credit for the unheralded “San Francisco miracle:” juvenile murders down 80 percent from 1992 to 1999, including 15 months with zero under-16 gun killings). Crime and shootings among youth fell substantially everywhere regardless of what locals did.

The behavior of young people themselves brought down crime and boosted education achievement dramatically. How else do we explain huge drops in youth crime, violence, murder and gun killings in Idaho and Connecticut, West Virginia and Washington, Oklahoma and California, New Jersey and Utah — states with widely varying conditions and policies? We elders did little to relieve unconscionable youth poverty, student debt and addiction and crime epidemics afflicting their parents. Grabbing credit for improvements sabotages reasoned evaluation.

This isn’t “superpredator” 1995, “broken-windows” 1982 or “biological-determinism” 1895. Is the adult brain capable of comprehending changed realities, or is it doomed to lag decades behind, indulging cosmetic system-tinkerings and pleasing orthodoxies to preserve archaic institutions?

Of course we can change. Biological determinism doesn’t dictate thinking, young or old. We need the dynamic, modern discourse 2017’s young people deserve.

Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.”

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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Raise the Age Wave Stalled in Michigan, But Gathering Strength in Texas, North Carolina

Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is getting frustrated. Legislatures around the country are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults.

Wu’s frustration grew earlier this month when New York made it six, joining the wave deciding that helping kids get their lives back on track is better than giving them a criminal record in the adult system. New York, which had automatically treated even 16-year-olds as adults, enacted a sweeping overhaul that included raising the age to 18, effective next year.

Rep. Gene Wu

“So many people here are saying, well, Texas is Texas, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the country is doing. But it does, and we should do better on this issue,” said Wu, a Houston attorney and Democratic lawmaker. He sponsored a bill earlier this year that he hopes will increase the state’s age of criminal responsibility to 18.

“Last year Texas was one of nine states, and when we filed this bill there were seven, and now six,” he said. “North Carolina is probably going to raise the age this year, and maybe Georgia, so we just keep falling behind, and there is no reason for it.”

Today, Wu and his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives voted by 82-62 to raise the age, giving supporters hope, although it faces an uncertain Senate fate.

Similar legislative battles are playing out around the country. North Carolina’s House has passed a nearly identical measure, but it faces a potential state Senate roadblock, as does Texas. And last session, Michigan’s House enacted the measure, but it died without making it to a Senate vote.

In each state, opponents argued that such measures would cost too much to implement, overrun juvenile justice court systems and could, potentially, leave dangerous youth on the street.

Supporters of the lower age say such fears are nonsense and point to extensive studies that show the move lowers costs to taxpayers and drastically reduces recidivism rates. More importantly, they argue, such change provides true justice by giving kids picked up for marijuana or other minor crimes a chance to keep their futures from falling apart.

Wu said recidivism statistics showing that 30 percent of all youths charged as juveniles in Texas never commit another crime should make passage a logical choice. But, as a contentious debate during today’s vote made clear, the fight is far from over. Debate lasted more than an hour, with many voicing concerns about potential costs or increases in juvenile crime.

Those concerns are shared by state Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, according to Wu. Whitmire repeated those concerns in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune.

Sen. John Whitmire

Whitmire, who has the power to keep the measure from reaching a Senate floor vote, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In both Connecticut and Illinois, which raised the age in recent years, startup costs were far lower than forecast, and juvenile crime has dropped, according to a March study by the Justice Policy Institute and public records compiled by each state’s juvenile justice department. Connecticut’s switch has been so successful that it is considering raising the age of criminal responsibility to 21.

Rep. Duane Hall

North Carolina state Rep. Duane Hall hopes such success stories will help him in his third attempt to get his state to act. With New York’s vote, North Carolina is the only state in the nation that automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults.

“Another dubious list for us to be last on,” said Hall, a Democrat who introduced similar measures in 2013 and 2015. Both passed the House, but could not even get a vote in the state Senate.

He’s more optimistic this time, buoyed by the nationwide trend, studies showing the benefits and growing enthusiasm of his colleagues.

“I think we are all in agreement that it is the right thing to do, first of all, but also that in the long term, and even the midterm, really, this is going to save the taxpayers millions of dollars,” Hall said. “In the past, the lone holdover of opposition was the sheriff’s association, but now they are on board, and that has made a difference.

Judge Mark Martin

“And North Carolina’s chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mark Martin, has made it a priority issue,” Hall said. “We are in a much better position today, but it will still come down to the budget.”

Estimates say the switch will cost the state about $15 million in the first year and slightly more in the second before cost savings kick in. Studies by the Justice Policy Institute and others have shown that nearly all states that have voted to raise the age experienced startup costs far lower than anticipated, in large part because of lower crime and recidivism rates.

Under North Carolina rules, the House bill must “cross over” to the Senate for consideration by April 27 to have a chance of being passed. There are provisions for it to be incorporated in the state budget process, but that is a longshot, said Hall’s legislative assistant, Gregory Lademann.

Earlier this year, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, only to see it die in the state Senate. The measure has been referred to a study committee for a full budget analysis, but that study is not scheduled to be finished until Jan. 1, 2018. Supporters hope to push a new bill long before then.

“We believe, and so do a lot of supporters of the legislation, that no matter what the study says, this is the right thing to do, and I’m not sure there is any reason to wait,” said Jason Smith, a policy associate at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues. “It’s important to have the financial information, but we’re lagging the rest of the country.

“I think we and other groups have done a very good job trying to educate people about the benefits, both financial and in other ways,” Smith said. “We’ve hosted experts from Connecticut and Illinois to share their success stories and show the positive results, and that’s made a big difference.”

In Texas, Wu, the state representative, is hoping that the weight of evidence nationwide will push the state Senate to finally act.

“This isn’t a tough sell, because people understand, both Republican and Democrat, that we’ve gone from tough on crime to smart on crime, and that has to be the approach,” Wu said. “We have statistics showing that 30 percent of all children put into the juvenile system will not reoffend, will never become adult criminals.

“That is tangible. People can see and feel that and understand the savings when you aren’t going to have to keep putting more people into adult prisons, or take care of them when they can’t get a job or a home because they did something stupid as a 17-year-old kid.”

Wu said the most important reason to raise the age is because it is the moral thing to do for youth and society.

“I represent juveniles in my day job, I had one kid, 16, a good kid, suddenly started fighting at school and getting worse grades,” said Wu, a full-time attorney when the legislature is not in session. “In the juvenile system, he got on our state insurance, and saw a therapist, who found a problem and prescribed mild drugs. He went back to normal almost immediately, got good grades again and stopped fighting.

“His family was poor and didn’t have access to medical so they couldn’t give him the help he needed,” Wu said. “If he was charged as an adult, his life could have been over. Charging in juvenile court, we look at the whole family situation, and the goal is how do we help this kid, as opposed to how do we hammer him, which is what happens in adult court.”


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Federal, State Courts may Clash on 350 Juvenile Lifers

A Michigan state court case says some 350 people given mandatory no-parole sentences for murders committed as juveniles must serve their full sentences. But in the coming days, a federal court is expected to opine on a similar question.

A federal court in Michigan will soon rule on the constitutionality of automatic, no-appeal life sentences given to 13 people over the last few decades. The offenders in Hill et. al. v. Granholm all committed murder aged between 14 and 17.

“The court will decide in light of the admitted unconstitutionality of [Michigan] statute, which doesn’t give parole to juveniles convicted of first degree murder, what is the mechanism that will provide meaningful opportunity for release,” said Deborah LaBelle, an independent attorney on the team arguing for Henry Hill and the others in front of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The case started in 2010 with nine original plaintiffs who argued that holding them for life with no meaningful opportunity for release was unconstitutional.

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed with a similar argument in a separate Alabama case. In Miller v. Alabama, the justices found that juveniles are less mature, and therefore less culpable than adults when it comes to the crime of murder. They said lower courts must consider the mitigating factor of age and immaturity when sentencing juveniles for murder. That rules out one-size-fits-all sentences.

The Michigan state legislature has not yet had time to write a new sentencing guideline that fixes their statute, though some proposals may yet come up for a vote this year.

But as the Hill plantiffs wait for their federal ruling, a state court has said new sentencing rules will not apply to those already serving time.

Raymond Carp, 21, must serve life in prison without the chance of parole for stabbing a woman to death in 2006, the state of Michigan Court of Appeals ruled last week. Carp asked for a new sentencing hearing in light of Miller v. Alabama. The panel of judges said no.

“We hold that in Michigan a sentencing court must consider, at the time of sentencing, characteristics associated with youth as identified in Miller when determining whether to sentence a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense to life in prison with or without the eligibility for parole,” the judges wrote.

But the new U.S. Supreme Court guarantee of such a hearing is a “procedural” change, not a “substantive” change, they continue. Thus by precedent and Michigan law, it only applies going forward, not to offenders like Carp who have already exhausted direct appeals.

Yet Carp’s case will be appealed to the state Supreme Court, LaBelle predicted.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette has fought resentencing for juvenile lifers, both by public statement and in court filings. "Fortunately, the Court of Appeals agreed to follow long-standing precedent that says U.S. Supreme Court rulings addressing criminal justice processes are not retroactive,” he said in a written statement. “I pray that the families of those murdered can find some comfort in the knowledge that their days in court are over.”

Michigan holds more of the estimated 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide than any other state.

Juvenile Offenders in Limbo under Outdated State Laws

More than two years after U.S. Supreme Court decisions started throwing out mandatory death and life sentences for minors, judges in Washington, Illinois and dozens of other states still lack guidance on what to do with juveniles past and present convicted of murder and some other serious felonies.

“Courts are uncomfortable in trying to figure out what ‘life’ means in terms of years,” said Kimberly Ambrose, senior law lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law. She represented Guadalupe Solis-Diaz at the state’s Court of Appeals, arguing against a 92-year sentence he’s serving for six counts of first-degree assault and other charges for his role in a drive-by shooting. The then 16-year-old Solis-Diaz fired into a crowd in Centralia, Wash., in 2007, though did not injure his target or anyone else.

It’s not clear in Washington if those 92 years are equivalent to what the U.S. Supreme Court calls “life” sentences. The federal high court has definitively thrown out state sentencing laws that mandate life without parole for juveniles. Beginning with the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case and more recently with Graham v. Florida in 2010 and Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the court says that juveniles are not yet fully mentally developed, are less culpable and more capable of reform. Therefore, lower court judges must consider those and other mitigating factors when sentencing juveniles for both homicide and non-homicide offenses.

Solis-Diaz’ counsel at his original sentencing failed to mention that U.S. Supreme Court trend. That omission, said the state appeals court, was one of several mistakes that contributed to their decision this month to throw out Solis-Diaz’ 92 years, on grounds of ineffective counsel.

“This is the first life-equivalent case to come before a Washington appellate court,” said Ambrose, speaking of non-homicide offenses.

But the court also noted it would not opine on any other sentence for Solis-Diaz.

“The legislature is the appropriate body to define crimes and fix punishments. To the extent that Graham suggests that an opportunity for parole must be available for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses, only the Legislature has the authority to amend the SRA [Sentencing Reform Act] to allow for such remedy,” the opinion reads.

They remanded the case for resentencing.

Many judges are grappling with how to amend their current laws to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on juvenile sentences. Some state legislatures have yet to update laws to comply with the two-year-old Graham case. And most state legislatures have been closed since the June, 2012 Miller decision, so have had no chance to start thinking about it. Thus judges dealing with juveniles convicted of murder must figure out if it would apply to juvenile offenders sentenced before it, and how to handle appeals, all without legislative guidelines.

“There’s lot of people trying to figure out what to do and how to proceed, and if it [Miller] would apply retroactively,” said Randolph Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The answers so far vary by state.

More than 100 people have been sentenced to life without chance of parole in Illinois for crimes committed as minors, according to a 2010 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nationally, there are more than 2,500 juvenile offenders who have received this sentence in the states that did or do allow it, according to The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy group.

“Does each of those people get a new hearing? If so, what sort of sentence will they be facing?” Stone asked.

He argued that because the Miller decision was bundled with one out of Arkansas, which relieved a defendant convicted for a crime he committed in 1999, juvenile offenders nationwide who had already been sentenced before the decision should have a chance for a new trial and sentencing.

“It’s a question of whether it will be decided on a case-by-case basis or a broad remedy that can be fashioned to deal with them all at the same time” he said.” I think it’s pretty clear that it does [apply retroactively], although the prosecutors are saying that it doesn’t.”

Michigan’s Supreme Court declined to settle retroactivity in its state this month. Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Court to rule out retroactivity on the life sentence of a man convicted of participating in an armed robbery as a 16-year-old. Instead, the court remanded the case for resentencing.

One prosecutor who’s agreed to applying Miller to one existing conviction is New Hampshire’s Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin.  Steven Spader was 17 when he hacked to death a woman in her home. In 2010, he was given his state’s mandatory sentence: life in prison. The court also added 76 years on other charges.

“Spader is the only defendant who has filed anything in court. We have agreed that he will be resentenced in light of the Miller decision,” said Strelzin.

“Four other defendants have indicated they may contest the applicability of Miller to their cases. However, none have filed any motions in court yet asking for a new sentencing hearing,” he said.

Spader’s case was still on appeal when Miller was published. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is hearing a similar case.

If the definition of “life” sentences varies by state, so does the definition of “juvenile.”  In Illinois, 17-year-olds facing felony charges are tried as adults, and children ages 15 and older charged with first- degree murder and other felonies, such as robbery at gun-point, are automatically transferred to adult court.

And an accountability statue in Illinois often leads courts to treat accomplices with the same degree of culpability as the shooter.

Illinois has to wrangle with a decade-old ruling by its state Supreme Court that foretold the later U.S. ruling, but may also preclude it being retroactive.

The court shot down a mandatory life sentence for a 15-year-old who had served as a lookout for two people convicted of homicide. The court wrote that under the state’s automatic transfer, accountability, and sentencing statutes, “a court never considers the actual facts of the crime, including the defendant's age at the time of the crime or his or her individual level of culpability.”

Matt Jones, of the state’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s office, said that mandatory sentencing for juveniles was already shot down in Illinois with this decision, and that courts had abstained from the practice since then, except in the case of 17-year-olds, who were still tried as adults.

But he also said the ruling made it clear that it shouldn’t be applied retroactively, and that he doesn’t think the Supreme Court’s decision in June will be applied retroactively either.

Stone argues the opposite, that the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision only applied to that specific case, and that courts throughout Illinois still maintained mandatory sentencing for minors convicted of homicide. He said that a new bill or amendment to the Illinois Code of Corrections must be made to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not talk about such details. But juvenile rights advocates hail the principle.

“These [mandatory sentencing] laws make it difficult for judges,” said Shobha Mahadev, a Northwestern University law professor. “The decision is taken out of the judge’s hand.  We have to change the way we treat children and change these laws.”

The Illinois Legislature may take the question up when it reconvenes in November. Ambrose expects it to be an issue in Washington as well. Pennsylvania legislators have already held hearings on a rewrite.

Michigan Arrest Raises Questions About Definition of Child Porn

Today, anyone can create a video and post it on the Internet for millions to see.  But law enforcement and the courts are struggling to keep up with the innovations.  In Michigan, a 21-year-old musician Evan Emory has been charged with creating and distributing child pornography after he edited a video to make it look like an audience of children was listening to him sing a song with sexually explicit lyrics.  He than posted the video on YouTube.  If convicted, Emory could face 20 years in jail and be forced to join the sex offender registry.

The first-graders were filmed while Emory performed children’s songs at the local elementary school.  After the children left, Emory taped himself singing the racy song.  He later cut the two together.  The video included a disclaimer the children, who were readily identifiable, were not present during the performance of the song.

According to a story in The New York Times, reactions to the video and Emory’s arrest have been split.  Many do not believe it could be considered child pornography, although most feel the video was in poor taste.

JJIE.org recently covered another case involving the digital manipulation of children’s images.  The Second Court of Appeals, in New York, upheld the conviction of a man who pasted the faces of underage girls on the naked bodies of adults.