Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blogging for Justice: Ending Juvenile Life Sentences Without Parole

“We don’t need more legislation, we need to grow a soul,” the 94-year-old Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs told us at the Michigan Policy Summit on May 16.

Well, in the case of ending juvenile life sentences without parole here in Michigan, we need both.

Michigan is one of the leading states that locks up juvenile offenders and throws away the key.  The United States of America is one of the few nations that locks up its youth in such a manner.  All civilized nations globally have ended the practice.

The Michigan Legislature is currently grappling with the issue.  The House of Representatives is considering legislation that will end juvenile life sentences without parole. A second round of hearings was held yesterday as the House Judiciary Committee took public testimony on pending House Bills 4518 and 4594-4596.

The House, during the last legislative session which ended in December, passed similar legislation with strong support.  The measures died pending before the State Senate.  So the process has started all over again.

As this week’s House Judiciary committee approached, the press grabbed onto the issue and gave some politically posturing local prosecutors a stage to inject scare tactics into the debate.  These local politicians certainly don’t want to be seen as “soft on crime” so justice-be-damned.

A number of opponents to the bills painted a picture that the legislation, if passed, would open the doors and let large numbers of violent killers loose on the public.  This is a convenient picture to paint as the cash-strapped state government is preparing to downscale the prison-industry complex and is set to release a number of prisoners for budgetary reasons.

The legislation does no such thing.  Passage of the bills would make parole available – many years down the road – to juveniles who are convicted of serious crimes.  Instead of just throwing away the key on the youth, these people will be given the chance to rehabilitate and prove themselves worthy of being released.  They would have to make a good argument – starting with a track record of good behavior in prison – before the parole board.  The legislation would give this opportunity to a limited number of prisoners currently serving no-parole life sentences that Michigan meted out to individuals as juveniles.  No one gets a free get-out-of-jail card.

I hold up the example of Efren Paredes, Jr., who has been incarcerated since he was 15 years old for a crime he did not commit.  He has grown up in prison and is now 36 years of age.  He is well-educated and very well respected both inside and outside the Michigan prison system.  Paredes, to start, deserves a medal for turning out to be a decent man having grown up in prison surroundings.  But more than that, he deserves Justice.  He was the first Michigan juvenile given a life sentence with no chance of parole.  Not only was his conviction wrong, but so was his sentence.

Paredes’s wrongful conviction should not detract from the larger point. Any under-aged youth convicted of a serious crime should not be denied the chance of rehabilitation. 

I encourage all of my readers to contact their state legislators to support the passage of these bills.  And I encourage everyone to contact Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to request the commutation of Efren Paredes, Jr.'s sentence.

Let’s not leave our sentencing guidelines for youth offenders a soul-less endeavor.

-- Rico Thomas Rico

Peace Education Center Advocates for Efren Paredes, Jr.

at Lansing's Cristo Rey Festival May 22-23, 2009 

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