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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, 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

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.