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Monday, October 31, 2016

Interview with Efren Paredes, Jr. About Juvenile Life Without Parole Resentencings

by Necalli Ollin

The following is a recent interview conducted with Efren Paredes, Jr. via phone from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Necalli Ollin (NO): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that prisoners who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers") received unconstitutional sentences and ordered them to be resentenced. What are the new sentencing guidelines for the 363 Michigan prisoners who will be resentenced?

Efren Paredes, Jr. (EPJ): The sentencing guidelines will be a 25- to 40-year minimum to 60-year maximum if they receive a term of years, and LWOP if a judge imposes the maximum sentence. The term of years guidelines means that a judge can sentence a prisoner to any term of years between 25 to 40 years as a minimum sentence but the maximum term of years cannot exceed 60 years (e.g., 25-60 years, 30-60 years, etc.). So, there is latitude for judges to consider several factors before imposing a sentence. Previously judges had no such authority in these cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court made it abundantly clear in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana that LWOP sentences can only be re-imposed on juvenile offenders after conducting a mitigation hearing to consider several factors, including establishing that a prisoner has no possibility of change for the remainder of his/her life. The U.S. Supreme Court also said LWOP sentences must be rare and uncommon. The Michigan Court of Appeals reiterated this language this summer in another case.

NO: Some legal scholars say that the U.S. Supreme Court changed its position about what courts must consider at juvenile lifer resentencing hearings. What changed between their ruling in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 and the Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling in 2016?

EPJ: In Miller v. Alabama the high court said that courts must consider a juvenile's youth status before sentencing. In the Montgomery v. Louisiana case the high court ruled that sentencing bodies must determine the incorrigibility of a juvenile at the time the crime occurred. The latter is significantly different than the former. The requirement for implementation of an incorrigibility standard is a much more difficult standard to establish.

In his dissenting opinion in the Montgomery case the late justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "Under Miller, bear in mind, the inquiry is whether the inmate was seen to be incorrigible when he was sentenced--not whether he was proven corrigible and so can safely be paroled today." He continued, "[T]he Court ... makes imposition of that severe sanction [i.e., life without parole] a practical impossibility." Perhaps conservative judges and prosecutors will be more accepting of Scalia's interpretation of the ruling if they disagree with the interpretation of legal scholars.

NO: Which prisoners do you believe should receive a term of years sentence versus a LWOP sentence when they are resentenced?

EPJ: I oppose LWOP sentences for all juveniles. The rest of the civilized world outside the U.S. (including nations known to be flagrant human rights violators like China, Iran and Russia) no longer imposes this deplorable sentence on juveniles and neither should the U.S. Every child possesses the enormous capacity for change and, as the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated, they are categorically less culpable than adults. To impose a LWOP sentence on juveniles is sending them the message that no matter what they do or how they change it will not matter, they will still die in prison. It is similar to the death penalty except that prisoners agonize longer mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually when serving a LWOP sentence. The United Nations defines it as torture.
Additionally, imposing a term of years sentence allows prisoners to demonstrate through their actions when they have changed, they pose no danger to society, and can be productive citizens if released. Skilled psychologists will not even attempt to predict when a juvenile will be rehabilitated in their future. It is impossible to do. That decision should be made by Parole Boards who are better skilled and equipped to make that decision after having the opportunity to monitor prisoners' behavior and progress after they are incarcerated.

NO: Do you support the release of every prisoner who was sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles?

EPJ: I support each of them having opportunities of presenting evidence of their rehabilitation to the Parole Board and convincing them that they can safely be released to society. Some people may need to serve 10 years in prison, and some may spend decades in prison depending on their demonstrated actions and maturity. There may also be some people that will never be released based on their refusal to be rehabilitated and change their lives.

The fight that has been taking place since the early 2000's by attorneys, human rights groups, and other juvenile advocates has been for juveniles to be afforded the "opportunity for parole consideration." It has never been for a "guarantee" of parole. This is a very reasonable and sensible approach which I support. Again, it is noted that the U.S. Supreme Court made it very clear that LWOP sentences should be rare, uncommon and only imposed on juvenile offenders who it can be proven have no chance of changing during the remainder of their lives.

NO: Do you believe that prisons rehabilitate prisoners?

EPJ: Prisoners rehabilitate themselves. There is little rehabilitation going on in Michigan prisons, though the MDOC has been making some positive steps in the right direction by adding new programs and making more vocational and higher education opportunities available in recent months. Unfortunately the vast majority of the programs are not available to prisoners serving life sentences. It is but one example of why prisoners serving lengthy sentences suffer so much despair and agonize daily over the inability to participate in life-changing opportunities that are offered to prisoners with earlier release dates.

It is a fact that 95% of the prison population, including those serving life sentences, will return to society one day. It is also true that prisoners serving life sentences have a less than 2% recidivism rate compared to upwards of 30% of the remaining prisoner population that is paroled annually. Prisons have been monuments to punishment and exclusion for decades. It is long overdue for policy makers to abandon this antiquated flawed approach. Society loses all the way around when it places citizens in prisons to mentally atrophy, become institutionalized, and detached from the realities of daily life. We should correct their thinking errors and prepare them to become productive citizens, not condemn them to be the worst they can be and become increasingly worse sitting in a prison cell. There is no civility in that and it is a poor reflection on lawmakers who wield the power to change it.
NO: What do you think will occur with the cases of prisoners who receive LWOP sentences again?

EPJ: Each and every case will be appealed to the Michigan appellate courts and even the federal courts, if necessary. It will result in years of protracted legal battles at taxpayer expense and also compound the emotional and psychological trauma that families impacted by the crimes must endure. Prosecutors who abuse their authority can harm entire communities in myriad ways in an effort to score political points. This is one of the reasons it is important for citizens to make their voices heard at the ballot box in the upcoming elections. Taxpayers have had their schools and various needed infrastructure projects (e.g., repairs of roads, tunnels, airports, etc.) defunded because of prosecutors who are wasting their hard-earned dollars on failed legal experiments.

Nineteen states have already ended LWOP sentences for youthful offenders. States are increasingly abandoning this unforgiving punishment for kids, and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will abolish LWOP for juvenile offenders nationally in the coming months. When that occurs all the time, effort and public funds spent by prosecutors will have been wasted. Society should not be held hostage to rogue prosecutors whose narrow interests in justice are morally impoverished and perpetuate inequalities. This can change by electing prosecutors who will follow the rule of law and apply it fairly to everyone. No one should provide a safe haven for implicit or explicit racial animus.

NO: What are your thoughts about people who participated in the miscarriage of justice that lead to your wrongful incarceration that has lasted nearly three decades?

EPJ: I believe in the Creator and I believe in the concept of forgiveness. I have long ago moved on with my life. I refuse to be trapped in the past or harbor ill feelings towards others. Every moment I think about the past is a moment I can't think about the future. I am more concerned about tomorrow than I am yesterday. I recognize that people make mistakes, intentional or otherwise, and that people are more than the worst choice they have made in their lives. We burden ourselves enormously when we live our lives blaming others and it creates a very toxic environment that arrests our development.

I am surrounded by a loving family, wonderful friends, and many supporters who provide me regularly guidance and encouragement. I remain focused on successfully reintegrating into society, completing all the terms of any parole requirements I may be given, becoming gainfully employed, rebuilding ties with family and friends I have been separated from, working to mentor at-risk youth to prevent them from becoming incarcerated, and creating safer communities. There is no room in any of that for negative energy or unhealthy thoughts. I have a return value and possess a wealth of skills and experiences I can offer society.
NO: Your case is featured in the documentary film "Natural Life" produced by filmmaker Tirtza Even about Michigan prisoners who were sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles. How has the film been received by people at its screenings?

EPJ: It has been received very well. The film features four other cases along with mine. It educates the viewer about the perils of imposing LWOP sentences on juveniles and why we should abandon the imposition of the deplorable sentence. I have personally called in to screenings of the film across the nation and answered dozens of questions by audience members. The film will be available soon for purchase or streaming via Amazon.com, Google Play, iTunes, and other online vendors. Efforts are also underway to make the film available on Netflix in the coming weeks. People can learn more about the film by visiting www.NaturalLifeFilm.org.

NO: What other projects are you currently working on you would like to share with our readers?

EPJ: I am the subject of a forthcoming investigative documentary dedicated solely to my case, as well as a separate documentary about extreme sentences. They consist of doing dozens of extensive interviews covering a broad range of areas. I am also working with a podcast producer who is a graduate student at Columbia University on an immersive audio project about my life.

I was approached by an MTV producer a few months ago who expressed interest in featuring my case as part of the "Unlocking the Truth" series currently airing on their station. Unfortunately my case could not be included because the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) denied them access to film me in person for the series. Filmed interviews of the prisoners featured was a necessary component to being included in the series.

Recently I was accepted into a new class being facilitated by a Michigan State University (MSU) professor at the prison I am located. The class consists of creating the first prison component of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) program that was created in 1990 on the MSU campus. The program trains people to mentor at-risk African-American students, Grades 6-8, with the objectives of: empowering them to eradicate fear of the unknowns, inspire them to pursue higher learning, increase their knowledge of viable career options, and foster educational self-esteem, personal responsibility, self-control and self-discipline.

I am presently serving on two of the committees developing the new MBK prisoner mentor curriculum. I will receive training between now and June 2017. Upon successful completion I will receive an MBK Mentor Internship Certification issued by the MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. I look forward to utilizing the wealth of knowledge and skills I have developed over the years working to help young people transform their lives.

NO: Thank you for responding to my questions. I look forward to interviewing you again soon. I want to share any developments with your case along the way to keep our readers updated about how things unfold.

EPJ: You're welcome. I will be sure to do that.


Friday, October 28, 2016

View Powerful Film Featuring Case of Efren Paredes, Jr.

The documentary film "Natural Life" by Tirtza Even which features the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. is now available for viewing on Google Play, VuDu, and by visiting the Apple Store on iTunes.

"Natural Life" discusses the subject of imposing life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders. The film uses Michigan as an example of why legislatures must abolish this deplorable policy. Michigan ranks second in the nation for the largest number of juveniles it has condemned to die in prison.

The viewer is introduced to important information and interviews with a retired judge, one of the nation's adolescent development experts, a private investigator, attorney, and other members of the community. Each offers important insight into various components of the issue.

Efren's case is one of five cases featured in the film. Family members and friends are encouraged to view the film and screen it at large events. You can contact Efren's family to request that he call in to any events after the film is screened to answer questions. He can also provide updates about the status of the resentencing hearings that should be occurring. His family can be reached via e-mail at EfrenUncaged@gmail.com.

One method commonly used by event organizers to ensure all those present can hear Efren's voice on the phone is by connecting your cell phone to an amp using a patch cord. This allows Efren to answer questions in real time. Patch cords are relatively inexpensive and available from computer and music supply stores.

You can also learn more about "Natural Life" by visiting www.NaturalLifeFilm.org.




Friday, October 14, 2016

Efren Paredes, Jr. Accomplishments During Incarceration

In 1989 Efren earned his GED at age 16. He also attended Montalm Community College and worked as a clerk for the school principal at the Michigan Reformatory. He subsequently worked as a clerk and teacher's aide at various prisons between 1990-97. Teachers described Efren as being a hard worker, excellent communicator, and being invaluable to the classroom setting.

Efren was certified as a Literary Braille Transcriber by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1997. He worked for Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund transcribing print textbooks into braille for blind and visually impaired children for 13 years. He also worked as a clerk in the accounting department, made presentations to board members, developed innovative ways to help make the corporation an industry leader, and became proficient in the use of the latest computer software and technology.

The International Library of Poetry selected Efren's poem, "Snowflakes," for publication in 2006 in their book "Immortal Verses." He was nominated as Poet of the Year by the International Society of Poets, and inducted as an International Poet of Merit and Honored Member of the International Society of Poets for 2006-07.

Between 2005-09 Efren participated in three University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) creative writing and art workshops. One of his poems was featured in the University of Michigan Creative Writing Workshop 2005 United Nations World Environmental Day anthology, "A Crack in the Concrete."

In 2008 Efren was part of a successful campaign to create a charter middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He also co-founded the online web site and organization Presente.org which advocates for social justice, civil rights, and human rights issues on behalf of Latina/os in the U.S. That same year the Berkeley City Council in California passed a resolution condemning Efren's sentence as a human rights violation.

In 2015 Efren successfully completed the "40 Days of Peace" and "40 Days of Power" programs, respectively. The Power of Peace Project founder, Kit Cummings, traveled to the Muskegon Correctional Facility from Atlanta, Georgia, to facilitate the program. The Power of Peace Project teaches about the value of non-violence and underscores the need to develop conflict resolution and race-relations skills.

That same year Efren successfully completed a course offered by Muskegon Community College (MCC) named "Transition to Success." The course teaches important skills to assist prisoners in their transition back to society. He also completed another MCC course named "The Elements of Music." He subsequently completed "Juvenile Restoration in Progress (JRIP)." JRIP was a course taught by a Lansing Community College professor and Prison Fellowship volunteer that was uniquely designed to provide resources and life skills to prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles.

Between 2015-16 Efren successfully completed Tier I and Tier II of Chance for Life, a program that teaches leadership, communication, mediation, and life skills. Chance for Life is a non-profit corporation strongly supported by the Michigan Department of Corrections that offers their programs inside Michigan prisons. One of the program's founders, Jessica Taylor, serves as a Detroit Police Department commissioner.

Efren has participated on panels and spoken at conferences regarding mass incarceration, cultural, race-relations, and political issues via phone at the U.S. Social Forum, Dia de la Mujer (Day of the Woman) Conference, Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art, David Weinberg Gallery, Thumbprint Summit, and St. Louis International Film Festival.
He has also been featured at events on the campuses of Columbia University, Michigan State University, Chicago School of the Arts Institute, Prescott College, University of Oregon, University of Michigan, University of Southern California (USC), and University of California, Berkeley.

For the past several years Efren has appeared on various radio stations and podcasts across the nation to discuss criminal justice issues. Some of the stations include National Public Radio (NPR), Youth Radio, Michigan Radio, Central Michigan University Public Radio, The Jack Ebling Show, La Raza Chronicles, KPFA Radio, Detroit Superstation 910 AM, Thousand Kites, Juvenile Justice Matters, 99% Invisible, and The Theory of Everything.

Articles about Efren have been featured on ColorLines, RaceWire, Xica Nation, The Progressive, The Michigan Citizen, South Bend Tribune, TelesurTV, Latina Lista, The Nation, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Lansing State Journal, MLive, Associated Press, AlterNet, and other web sites. In 2016 LATINA magazine named Efren as one of four Latino prisons in the U.S. deserving clemency.

Efren has taken his message of non-violence and criminal justice reform to other countries as well. He spoke to a large audience of youth at a basketball tournament in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) and has appeared twice on TelesurTV, a television and radio station based in Quito, Ecuador.

In 2015 Efren was featured in the documentary film "Natural Life" produced by Tirtza Even. The film is about Michigan prisoners sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles. The film can be viewed on Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, and on iTunes by visiting the Apple Store. Efren will also be featured in two future films being produced. One is about extreme sentences and the other is an investigative documentary about the circumstances surrounding his incarceration.

While in prison Efren has raised money for underfunded public school classrooms, youth summer camps, and breast cancer awareness. He also applied for and received over $80,000 in grant funding from a non-profit corporation to build a weight training area and fund the purchase of library books, encyclopedias, and a learning resource center at a prison he was formally housed at.

Efren has been invited to speak at religious services of various faiths (e.g., Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Native American, and Buddhist) and cultural organization events throughout his incarceration. He has also been a keynote speaker at Cinco de Mayo, Latino History Month, Kwanzaa, Black History Month, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and other events.

Throughout his incarceration Efren has served multiple terms as a board member of several cultural and civil rights organizations at prisons he has been located. Among them include the NAACP, Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO), Hispanic Americans Striving Towards Advancement (HASTA), Indian Nations United (INU), and the National Lifers of America (NLA).

Efren has developed proposals and received approval by prison administrators to host numerous members of the public who have visited prisons to speak on an array of subjects. Some of the people who have visited prisons upon his invitation include professors, state legislators, poets, authors, psychologists, lawyers, clergy, and social justice advocates.

For nearly three decades Efren has successfully completed therapeutic courses facilitated by social workers and psychologists in Anger Management, Thinking Errors, Meditation, Stress Management, Grief and Loss, Character Development, and Group Therapy. He co-facilitated a Conflict Resolution class alongside facility staff at the Kinross Correctional Facility in 2014. Subsequently he completed a relationship course and the Inside-Out Dad program which teaches parenting skills to incarcerated fathers.

While incarcerated Efren has received commendations from prison Wardens for the positive work he has done assisting the prisoner population through his work serving 14 six-month terms as a member of the Warden's Forum at various prisons. He was elected to serve in the capacity as Warden's Forum Chairman the majority of the terms. Additionally, he has the documented support of a retired Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund Executive Director, as well as current and retired Michigan Department of Corrections staff.

In recent years Efren began teaching a comprehensive digital literacy course he designed to teach prisoners about Internet usage, web development, and blogging. He also provides lessons about harnessing the power of social networking to engineer social justice campaigns. His goal is to encourage prisoners to explore technology and allay their fears of re-entering society in the digital age as returning citizens. This is particularly helpful to prisoners who have been absent from society for many years.

Efren is currently the subject of an immersive audio project being created by a New York-based podcast producer and Columbia University graduate student. Among their collaborative efforts is producing a podcast series for The Marshall Project about Efren's life in prison. An Emory University law professor is also devoting a chapter about him in an upcoming book she is authoring about prisoners sentenced to life without parole sentences when they were juveniles.

In September 2015 Efren was among 20 prisoners selected to help develop a prison outreach component of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) program based at Michigan State University (MSU). MBK is a program that trains people to become mentors to at-risk African-American boys, Grade 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools. Their initial aim is to create a peer-to-peer prisoner mentoring program. Prisoners will subsequently receive the skills to mentor middle-school students. Upon successful completion of the program training Efren will receive an MBK Mentor Internship certification from the MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.

Updated 1/13/17