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Friday, December 16, 2016

Unraveling the Juvenile Lifer Series on Michigan Radio

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

A recent series about prisoners being resentenced who originally received mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers") has been airing on Michigan Radio this week.

Michigan is home to 363 prisoners who previously received this extreme sentence which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is unconstitutional. The high court ordered re-sentencing for all 2,500 prisoners affected across the nation.

In their opinion the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the only juvenile offenders who can receive LWOP sentences are those "rare" cases where the person is "irreparably corrupt" and "incapable of change." They also added that such sentences should become "uncommon."

Prosecutors across Michigan responded to the high court by filing motions to pursue LWOP sentences again in 228 of the 363 cases rather than term of year sentences now allowed by Michigan law.

One of the subjects discussed Tuesday, December 13, on Michigan Radio was the conduct of juvenile lifers during incarceration. This was raised because some prosecutors seek to use it as one of the factors to consider what type of sentence to pursue against prisoners.

Former Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Director Patricia Caruso was featured on Michigan Radio to share her experience working with juvenile lifers when she was a Warden, MDOC Director, and President of the American Correctional Association.

During her interview Caruso stated that given everything she knows about the corrections department and prisoner reform she supports the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that imposing LWOP sentences on juvenile offenders should be rare and uncommon.

Caruso went on to say that many of the misconduct reports that juvenile lifers received that were formerly considered major rule infractions are now designated as minor rule infractions under the system's revised policy regarding misconduct reports. She added that juvenile lifers receiving misconduct reports reflects more about them being adolescents than about the potential for their success upon release.

Understandably, a few things have been missed during the Michigan Radio series. One subject is circumstances surrounding prisoner misconduct reports.

When juvenile lifers received misconduct reports they were still serving death-by-incarceration sentences. They were living each day with the reality that they were condemned to die in prison. Hope had been extinguished and many lacked a sense of purpose.

It would be misguided for people to offer that juvenile lifers should be judged by the darkest period of their lives when they were enduring despair and struggling to survive. Many were devastated, experiencing depressing, abandoned by family, totally isolated from the world, and undergoing other forms of trauma.
Another important issue to be raised is the number of misconduct reports prisoners receive for things they did not actually do. Prisoners share cells with other prisoners, and sometimes even several other prisoners in open dormitory settings. In this situation a prisoner can hide contraband (e.g., knives, drugs, etc.) in another prisoner's area without her/his knowledge instead of hiding it in their own area to avoid punishment if prison staff find the item. It is a rampant problem that corrections officials admit they cannot prevent or resolve.

Numerous misconduct reports have been written on prisoners because of contraband that did not belong to them. But because a staff member finds the contraband in a specific prisoner's area of control s/he has no choice but to write a misconduct report on the prisoner who is responsible for that area.

They have no latitude to decline writing it on the person even if they know the prisoner has no reputation of causing problems and may likely not be guilty.

Then there is the issue of fights and assaults. Many young prisoners receive misconduct reports for fighting because they were victims defending themselves against assaults by older prisoners or defending themselves from being robbed or extorted for sex or money. Young prisoners are often targets of aggression by older prisoners.

Some prisoners are also written assault on staff misconduct reports for not even committing an assault. They can receive an assault charge for moving during a clothed body search being conducted by staff, pulling away from a staff member after being handcuffed, or inadvertently bumping into a staff member, etc.

While there do exist incidents of prisoner fights or assaults that are inexcusable every situation is different and should be judged on the individual circumstances, not solely by the name of the charge filed against them which can be very misleading. These are just a few of many examples that occur related to prisoner misconducts that most members of the public are unaware of, including prosecutors and judges.

Three more points deserving of attention in this discussion are statistics related.

First, prisoners who have spent more than 20 years in prison who are released have a very low recidivism rate. That number decreases even further when the prisoner reaches age 40, is married, or has children. A prisoner in all four categories would be the lowest of all recidivism prospects.

Second, prisoners convicted of first-degree homicide who are released have less than a 1% chance of recidivating. They are statistically the lowest of all categories of prisoners to possibly return to prison. It is a fact that often goes ignored.

Third, studies show that there is no direct correlation between the number of misconduct reports prisoners receive and their success upon re-entry into society. There are many people who are simply unable to cope while living in a human cage for any length of time. A large number also suffer from mental health issues which exacerbate the situation further.

It is also worth noting that no misconduct charge, with the exception of the charge of homicide, has prevented prisoners from returning to society as productive citizens. The Parole Board releases thousands of prisoners each year who have received misconduct reports in their past. And, each year the vast majority of parolees successfully complete all the terms of their parole conditions. Juvenile lifers who are released can be equally successful.

When it comes to identifying the "rare" and "uncommon" cases that are eligible to receive LWOP sentences some ministers of justice are reluctant to answer the question. The U.S Supreme Court, however, made it abundantly clear. Their answer was the rare juvenile who is "irreparably corrupt" and "incapable of change."

I have never met a single juvenile lifer who was guilty of the crime he was convicted of that did not express remorse for his actions and deeply regret making the choices that lead to his incarceration. In every case he wishes he could undo the tragedy and readily admits that, if given the opportunity to go back in time, he would never make the same mistake again.

This is only one example that reflects the maturity many juvenile lifers have undergone leading to reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton stated on Michigan Radio that he wished the MDOC offered additional programming to juvenile lifers because he acknowledged they do not qualify for many programs due to the amount of time they were sentenced to. Ironically, he also attempted to argue that the majority of the juvenile lifers in his county are incapable of change.

Two questions should be asked: one, if Prosecutor Leyton believes juvenile lifers are incapable of change why does he wish the MDOC would offer them more programs; and two, why do psychologists reject any attempts to divine the future of juvenile lifers and claim they are incapable of change?

In his Stanford Law Review article, "Two Cultures of Punishment," Joshua Kleinfeld writes:

"A free will can reverse itself, a proud person can learn humility, a selfish person can learn to be fair. To say someone has a vice is not to say someone is ruined. There is space between the person and her shortcomings."

Any human behavior expert, parent, or teacher will admit that juveniles are capable of change in their lives. The issue isn't about IF they are capable of change, it's WHEN they will change.

Advocates for juvenile lifers to receive term of year sentences have never sought the immediate release of every juvenile lifer. They have simply asked for them to receive sentences that allow for meaningful parole consideration during their incarceration.

This would allow the Parole Board to receive jurisdiction over these cases and use their vast knowledge of rehabilitation to determine when, if ever, juvenile lifers should be released on a case-by-case basis.

A prisoner could receive a 25 to 60 year sentence and serve the entire 60 year maximum term. Only those persons who do not pose a risk to public safety and earn a parole through positive conduct will be released when the Parole Board deems appropriate. It is a fair approach that balances justice for all involved.

The Michigan Radio juvenile lifer series is doing a great job exploring the subject. I am hopeful the public will become more educated about all the facets of this important issue.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to LWOP in 1989. Incarcerated now for nearly 28 years, he is now 43-years-old. You can learn more about Efren by visiting and