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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Incarcerated for Life at Age 15: Lessons From Efrén Paredes, Jr.

The inside of a cell will try to erase you. Efrén Paredes, Jr. knows that, just as his life sentence has also taught him how time can relentlessly add up each day, without any hope for release. Convicted for murder and robbery at the age of 15, Paredes's life should trouble us all. But the really troubling question isn't the nature of his crimes, but rather why — after two decades — he still sits inside a cell in a Michigan prison.

It's hard to imagine what that much time does to a person. Harder still to imagine how Paredes, incarcerated at 15, has in over 20 years of prison transformed himself into a passionate advocate for justice, a highly intelligent man and a skilled organizer. During his recent hearing before the Michigan Board of parole, over two hundred people testified — many attesting to his ability to serve as a community asset and to the man that he has become in prison. Others, by contrast, argued that he should remain in prison. Somewhere between these two perspectives, we have lost the idea of justice.

The death of Rick Tetzlaff, who Paredes allegedly killed, was tragic. There's no escaping the brutality of it. There is no escaping the impact of Tetzlaff's death on his family and on his community. But justice here shouldn't mean that a 15-year-old gets sentenced to life in prison without parole.

When I met Paredes, he'd organized a speaking engagement for me at his Michigan prison — the first time I'd been back inside a prison since my release a few years earlier. While reading there from my memoir, A Question of Freedom, I recognized something. Prison is a community all its own, and those confined must lean upon each other for support, understanding and guidance. Too many falter because there aren't enough prisoners who truly represent strength of character, conviction and leadership. Paredes, though, does.

Yet Paredes has recently learned that his petition for release has been denied by Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. The question here is not about guilt or innocence. Yes, Paredes maintains that he is innocent, and the family continues to insist that he should remain in prison forever. But the question here is the sanity of sentencing a 15-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At what moment is a life sentence equivalent to a death sentence, and at what point is that sentence too much?

Paredes just watched his 37th birthday come and go behind bars. His case exemplifies the worst of what we do to juveniles in the name of justice. When he was sentenced, the judge issuing his sentence said, "I must believe that you can do good if you want to." Our system should be able to recognize this possibility — and offer a man like Paredes the opportunity to walk free in the world after years of doing good. Given the marvel of his accomplishments — all of which he has achieved without institutional support — his very life is an argument against juvenile life without parole. And his continued incarceration is a scar on our justice system.

Photo Credit: FriaLOve

R. Dwayne Betts committed six felonies at age 16 and served nine years in adult prison, a journey he chronicles in his recent book, A Question of Freedom.