"In The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, Jane Addams, the Nobel Prize winning social worker and crusader for the juvenile court, emphasized that youth above all is about possibility and that 'we may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it.' We reject life without the possibility of parole sentences because they smother the divine fire of youth. They are an expression of despair that has no place in any system that aims to take seriously youth as a mitigating factor." —David S. Tanenhaus, Steven A. Drizin, "Owing to the Extreme Youth of the Accused": The Changing Legal Response to Juvenile Homicide, 92 The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-) 641 (2002)
December 25, 2007
The Honorable Paul Condino
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909-7514
Dear Representative Condino and Other Distinguished Members of the Michigan Legislature:
I write to express that I echo the call of the proponents to end the imposition of life without parole sentences on juveniles in the State of Michigan. Their opposition to this human rights violation is commensurate with 192 other nations of conscience in the civilized world. I support their appeal to this honorable legislative body for the reasons they have raised and I include additional reasons below.
For nearly 19 years I have been imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. I was convicted in 1989 of one count of murder and one count of armed robbery. I was subsequently sentenced to two terms of life without parole for the murder charge and one parolable life sentence for the armed robbery. My guidelines for the armed robbery charge was 3 to 8 years.
I was 15-years-old at the time of my arrest. Previous to this arrest I had no criminal history of any kind in adult or juvenile court and was a high school honor student. I lived in St. Joseph, Michigan in a good community, enjoyed the strong support of family, and was involved in various extracurricular activities.
I have maintained my innocence for the crime since the day of my arrest. My innocence, however, is not the subject of this letter. I did not compose this letter to re-try my case in the court of public opinion, rather I want to bring to your attention a broader issue that is adversely affecting our youth and threatening their future.
I was the first juvenile in Berrien County to be tried and sentenced under the October 1988 law which authorized prosecutors to automatically transfer juveniles to adult court and try them as adults. My refusal to admit guilt to a crime I did not commit resulted in me receiving the aforementioned sentences amid a barrage of print, radio and television media publicity. The sentences I received have been cited in various reports as one of the most egregious cases of injustice against a juvenile.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is comprised of 35,000 premier psychiatrists from across the nation. In a position paper released in 2005 titled "Adjudication of Youths as Adults in the Criminal Justice System," the APA called for an end to the deplorable practice of transferring juveniles to adult court for a number of reasons, one which precluded the transfer of first-time juvenile offenders to adult court.
The APA is a highly respected body of medical specialists who establish and maintain guiding principles for the nation's field of psychiatry. (Please see http://psych.org/about_apa for more information about the APA). Their recommendations have strongly influenced the criminal justice system and legislative bodies across the country.
In recent years a large corpus of research has emerged reflecting that the teenage brain is not fully developed. The brain is actually undergoing a pruning process during the adolescent years in the executive area of the brain that controls decision-making and planning, among other critical things.
Science has conclusively proven that teenage brains are incomplete and do not fully develop until well into a person's 20s. Thus, adolescent brains are incomplete, rendering adolescents incomplete people with limited cognitive abilities by scientific and medical standards.
If an adult functions with the mentality of a person 17-years-old or younger, that person is deemed mentally unfit to stand trial in most cases. But when a person 17-years-old or younger commits a crime, courts across the state are determining that person has been transformed into an adult. There is something gravely wrong with this faulty logic.
The APA are medical professionals who have reviewed the research which has conclusively established teenage brains are not fully formed, they are undergoing significant changes during that time, and no doctor can predict future dangerousness, or amenability to treatment, of a person with a brain not fully formed.
Adolescents are not the same people in days, weeks, months, and especially years after their crimes were committed. There is no proven nexus between extinguishing the light of hope in adolescents committed to prison and the prevention of crime. Adolescents do not even have the capacity to comprehend crime deterrence and formulate long-term planning. Their sense of time alone is not within the realm of normal functioning adults.
Courts and legislatures have respected the opinions of the APA when creating and imposing laws. Psychiatrists evaluated each juvenile sentenced to life without parole prior to sentencing. I urge this honorable legislative body to adopt the current position of the APA about the transfer of juveniles to adults court based on their years of research, and join the rest of the world as they continue to embrace evolving standards of decency in civilized societies.
Implicit in the APA's position opposing the transfer of first-time offenders to adult court is desisting the practice of imposing life sentences without the possibility of parole as well; a veritable death sentence in this state. Without the transfer of juveniles to adult courts in this state, there can be no imposition of life without parole sentences on juveniles.
Michigan was the first state to abolish the imposition of the death penalty in the western hemisphere. The United States now stands alone as the only nation in the western hemisphere to impose life sentences without parole on juveniles. Let us come together to abandon another one of the world's relics of the ancient past by desisting the draconian practice of imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles as well.
We are a nation "under God" and in God, we do indeed trust. These words are prominently displayed in our capitol building, legislative chambers, and courtrooms. The protection of our children and adoption of sound public policy which focuses on the rehabilitation of children is commensurate with our belief in God. Abandoning the concepts of redemption and rehabilitation contravene our belief in God and having God as the cornerstone of our decision-making.
We can utilize this discussion as an opportunity to restore God in His rightful place in the decision making process that affects the trajectory young people’s lives may take. To not infuse this dialogue with the spirit of righteousness is tantamount to removing God from the equation all together.
It is my fervent prayer that this honorable legislature abolish the imposition of life without parole on juveniles and restore dignity to the way juveniles are treated by the criminal justice system. In so doing we can rescue a generation of youth and help realign the moral compass that has allowed us to demonize them and treat them as pariahs.
Efren Paredes, Jr.
* A copy of Efren's actual letter and supporting attachments which were included are available at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/1406740/Letter-to-Paul-Condino-and-House-Judiciary-Committee-Members-from-Efren-Paredes-Jr