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Friday, August 23, 2019

Pres. of Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Mich. Visits Coldwater Prison


by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019, prisoners at the Lakeland Correctional Facility hosted DJ Hilson, Muskegon County Prosecutor and President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. Hilson accepted the invitation to speak at the facility from prisoners interested in building bridges and beginning a dialogue between prosecutors and prisoners.

A large number of prisoners turned out to hear Hilson share his thoughts and answer a broad range of questions regarding important criminal justice issues. Some of the subjects discussed included the school to prison pipeline, sentencing reform, and rehabilitation. He also shared how his faith guides his daily life and his dedication to community engagement.

Hilson stated he was impressed with the atmosphere and view of the sprawling prison grounds which he absorbed as he ambulated from the Control Center to the building we convened in. Absent the fences draped in concertina wire that ring the prison, he could see a landscape more closely resembling a park or college campus than a compound caging human lives.

As he walked through the prison, Hilson observed dogs from the dog rescue program being walked around by their trainers, prisoners harvesting an array of vegetable gardens, and several beautifully manicured islands of vibrant flower beds. He also passed an assortment of bushes and trees, stone bird baths, and an outdoor fish pond -- home to dozens of colorful goldfish.

The landscaping is the product of former Wardens at the prison who sought to create a vision of humanity and foster a milieu of rehabilitation. It was created through decades of hard work by prisoners in the facility horticulture program and is maintained daily by prisoner groundskeepers.

At the event Hilson was introduced by a member of the Warden's Forum named Cedric Tooks. This writer moderated the dialogue. I received several questions from audience members and was tasked with presenting Hilson the ones that were appropriate, beneficial to the audience, and within the agreed upon terms in advance of the event (i.e., no questions or advice regarding personal cases).

Both prisoners and facility staff enjoyed the dialogue with Hilson and had a lot of positive takeaways. Even prisoners who were initially reluctant to attend the event because the speaker was a prosecutor expressed they were glad that they accepted the invitation to go.

According to one prisoner, "Going to the event wasn't what I thought it would be. I expected to hear a bunch of tough on crime rhetoric and about how horrible prisoners are. Instead, [Hilson] told us he views us [i.e., prisoners] as human beings capable of change even though we've made mistakes. That really stuck with me."

Several prisoners stated they respected Hilson's courage to speak inside a prison. Rather than attempt to ingratiate himself with prisoners, he expressed his genuine feelings and beliefs. He even began a couple statements with, "I know this isn't going to be popular," signaling he understood prisoners may not agree with his answer to a question.

Though there were some areas of disagreement during the hour-and-a-half long exchange of ideas, Hilson and audience members were able to agree on several issues. He also remarked that he would remain open-minded and receptive to sensible future policy reform ideas.

One idea Hilson and prisoners were able to agree on was collaborating to deter at-risk youth from entering the criminal justice system as one way for prisoners to help heal our communities and make them safer. Hilson accepted our invitation to work with event organizers to create a Youth Deterrent Program ("YDP") to help at-risk youth and prevent crime.

YDPs currently exist at three Michigan prisons. They consist of representatives from the prosecutor's office, law enforcement, social workers, and non-governmental organizations -- or combinations thereof -- accompanying a small group of at-risk youth to engage in dialogue with prisoners. They convene for a couple hours each month in a prison visit room where the public visits prisoners when the space is available outside of regularly scheduled visiting hours.

During YDP dialogues prisoners encourage youth to remain in school and avoid a criminal lifestyle. They also share stories about their lives and the harsh experience of incarceration. Prisoners are carefully screened to participate in the YDP by prison administrators. Close supervision by the team of people who escort the youth to the prison and prison custody staff also remain present at all times.

If this version of a YDP isn't feasible at LCF other options can include arranging to have prisoners speak to at-risk youth in various counties in real-time via video teleconferencing, over the phone, or forming a group of prisoners to write them letters or messages. Combinations of these could also be helpful.

At one point during my conversation with Hilson I conveyed to him that no prisoner's life experiences can be reduced to a single story. They are no more defined by their greatest accomplishment than they are by their worst mistake. It is a culmination of their life experiences that defines them. Not a snapshot in time.
I also expressed the importance of remembering that 95% of all prisoners return to their communities one day. They aren't banished to another planet after they leave the courtroom never to be seen again. Some people seem to embrace this false narrative, however, given the way prisoners are demonized and portrayed as menacing, irredeemable figures.

It is a reality that must be acknowledged by all stakeholders involved (e.g., judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, legislators, members of the community, etc.) and taken seriously, so wrath can be replaced with opportunity, and condemnation replaced with compassion.

If we don't strive to erase the stigmas metaphorically branded on returning citizens we run the chilling risk of transforming prisons into monster factories by objectifying prisoners. We also risk exponentially increasing the chances of these women/men recidivating and becoming deficits to society rather than assets by creating a dismal culture of failure.

According to Simon Sinek, author of the New York Times bestselling book, "Start With Why," "The more abstract people become, the more capable we are of doing them harm." This is one of the dangers of othering prisoners. Once we embark down that dark, narrow path it becomes easier to dehumanize them and engage in abhorrent behavior towards them.

Hilson acknowledged that prisoners who have served decades behind bars are not the same people they were at the time of their crimes. He also expressed his belief that there are things prosecutors can learn about the prison experience and prisoner's lives that can help better inform prosecutors how to tailor punishment for offenders.

The event was the first time Hilson participated in this type of dialogue inside a prison since he has been a prosecutor. He expressed his gratitude for being invited to participate and a willingness to return in the future to build on the successful dialogue that began that day.

It was a positive experience teeming with teachable moments for Hilson and his audience. A testament to the power of communication and keeping an open mind even in a place where people frequently find themselves at odds with one another as they struggle to cope with the daily horrors of incarceration.

The event also demonstrated that prosecutors and prisoners can occupy the same space at the same time and have a thoughtful conversation. Every point of contact doesn't have to be adversarial or in a courtroom.

When we can recognize the humanity in each other, regardless of our station in life, we can collaborate to usher in a new reality born of mutual respect and understanding. We also model the capacity of metanoia for future generations who aspire to stand on our shoulders as they explore ways to build a better future.

Hilson's visit was a step in the right direction to improve prosecutor and prisoner relations. Hopefully it was only the first chapter of working together to change the trajectory of troubled lives, help heal our communities, and explore ways to foster redemption and second chances.

(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is one of Michigan's 230+ remaining juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing. He is a blogger, change maker, and social justice activist whose case is the subject of the recent documentary film installation titled "Half Truths and Full Lies." You can learn more about Efrén or the film by visiting http://Facebook.com/Free.Efren)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Fed. Judge Makes Case to End Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders


by Efrén Paredes, Jr.









A federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan recently ruled that prison sentences are unconstitutional if they are "the functional equivalent of life without parole" (LWOP), exceed a juvenile offender's lifespan, or do not give the offender a "meaningful opportunity for parole consideration."

The ruling was made by Judge Mark Goldsmith in the case Hill v. Whitmer, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115855 (decided 7/12/19), regarding prisoners who were sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers").

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of all 2,500 prisoners across the nation affected by the ruling.

The Miller decision held that a LWOP sentence could now only be imposed on juveniles in cases where judges have an option to mete out a term-of-years sentence or a LWOP sentence. In other words, judges must have discretion to choose.

The court made it abundantly clear, however, that LWOP sentences could only be imposed in cases where the juvenile offender is "irreparably corrupt" and incapable of change. They also stated that the extreme sentence must become "rare and uncommon."

Contrary to popular belief, the high court did not ban LWOP sentences altogether for juvenile offenders. They only struck down LWOP sentences in cases where a mandatory sentence was the only sentence that could be imposed by a judge at the time.

In Michigan there were 373 prisoners who needed to be resentenced. Of that number, 235 prisoners -- sixty-three percent -- have yet to be resentenced and continue serving unconstitutional sentences.

The inordinate delay has been the result of prosecutors abusing their authority to arbitrarily file motions seeking LWOP sentences against hundreds of prisoners who do not meet the requirements outlined in the landmark Miller ruling. Their misconduct has resulted in the need for costly mitigation hearings and expert witnesses at taxpayer expense.

Judge Goldsmith's ruling strikes at the heart of Michigan's law regarding the sentencing of juvenile lifers to extreme sentences. If a prison sentence that exceeds a juvenile offender's lifespan is unconstitutional because it denies the offender meaningful parole consideration, obviously a LWOP sentence that will never provide them parole consideration does as well.

Lawmakers continue clinging to pernicious punishment for juvenile offenders so they can campaign as being "tough on crime" rather than "smart on crime." LWOP sentences for juveniles would have been abolished years ago as twenty-one other states have already done if not for legislators' reticence to do the right thing.

If lawmakers are unable to resolve this ongoing legal battle one sensible solution is for Attorney General Dana Nessel to withdraw the motions filed by prosecutors seeking LWOP sentences again for the remaining 235 juvenile lifer cases. This would avert further delays, allow judges to schedule sentencing hearings, and proceed as they normally do when performing other individualized sentencing hearings.

The impediment to moving forward would be removed and prosecutors could still argue for imposition of radically extreme sentences, if they elect to do so. Sentencing bodies are not marionettes to prosecutors, however. They are independent thinkers who can interpret the law and will side with the U.S. Supreme Court more often than they will with prosecutors in the vast majority of cases.

Another proposed solution is for Governor Whitmer to commute the sentences of the remaining juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing to 25- to 60-year sentences, and give jurisdiction to the Parole Board to begin reviewing the cases for parole consideration after the prisoners have served twenty-five years. After twenty-five years all juvenile lifers will have served well over half their entire lives behind bars.

By commuting their sentences the prisoners would all remain convicted and not be released until the Parole Board determines they no longer pose a danger to society. The prisoners would not automatically be released. The Parole Board would use its wealth of resources to make these determinations as they do for thousands of cases each year.

Release of prisoners would be contingent upon their rehabilitation and what they are doing with their time while incarcerated. Those who do not demonstrate growth and maturity could remain incarcerated up to 60 years depending on their behavior, if they live that long.

Of the nearly seventy prisoners who have been paroled none have recidivated and all have become productive members of society. Prisoners serving LWOP sentences who are released have a less than one percent chance of recidivating. This is the lowest recidivism risk of all offense categories.

Commuting the sentences would also save taxpayers millions of dollars that could be reinvested in schools and infrastructure projects rather than spent on avoidable mitigation hearings. Conservative estimates have the cost of 235 hearings being upwards of $10 million to pay for attorneys, qualified expert witnesses, and court hearings.

Political theater and gamesmanship are not the solutions to correct failed public policies that prizedeath-by-incarceration sentences over rehabilitation and redemption for juvenile offenders. Creating more injustice is not a solution to resolving injustice, it only compounds the problem. We need more solutions not more problems.

(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is one of Michigan's 235 juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing. He is a blogger, change maker, and social justice activist whose case is the subject of the recent documentary film "Half Truths and Full Lies." You can learn more about Efrén or the film by visiting http://Facebook.com/Free.Efren)

Monday, March 4, 2019

"Half Truths and Full Lies" Film About Efren Paredes, Jr. Coming to Lansing, MI

You are cordially invited to the reception for the film installation "Half Truths and Full Lies."

"Half Truths and Full Lies" is a multi-channel documentary film installation that depicts the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to life without parole in 1989 for a murder he asserts he did not commit. He has spent two-thirds of his entire life behind bars and will soon be 46-years-old.

The reception is Friday, March 15, 2019, from 5 - 8 p.m.

Location:
Casa de Rosado
204 W. Mt. Hope
Lansing, Michigan

Filmmaker Tirtza Even and members of Efren's family will be in attendance at the reception. Efren will also be calling in to the event from prison throughout the evening. He will be available to answer questions and participate in media interviews.

The reception is being held on the 30th anniversary of Efren's original arrest date. A selection of his essays, poetry; and an in-depth, revealing, exclusive new interview with him about his personal life and decades of experiences during his incarceration will also be available at the gallery. 

You are encouraged to use our Facebook event page to invite friends in your network to view the film installation, to share the event on your social media platforms, and ask others to do the same. The Facebook event page can be accessed at: www.bit.ly/HTFL315. You can visit the event page for any updates between now and the opening reception.
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"Half Truths and Full Lies" is a collaboration film project between nonfiction filmmakers Tirtza Even, Meg McLagan, and multimedia producer Elyse Blennerhassett.

The exhibit will be on display from March 15 - April 12, 2019. It is free and open to the public.

The film depicts, through documentation and reenactment, the case of Efren Paredes, Jr., a Latinx man from Michigan, who was arrested at age 15 and sentenced to life without parole for a homicide he asserts he did not commit.

The multi-channel installation takes on a Rashomon-like quality, as divergent accounts of the crime accrue, forming multiple portraits of Efren. These accounts reflect perspectives of a range of individuals, from a police detective detective to key witnesses from the tight-knit small town community who singled Efren out, as well as of those whose lives -- over the past 30 years -- were most affected by the teen's conviction: family members, teachers, and citizens who sat in judgment as jury members.

"Half Truths and Full Lies" tells a story about a story; one constructed by a group of teens who appear to have conspired to set up their peer, and whose narrative played on stereotypical assumptions about racial minorities. This account became the only one the public and the jury got to hear, and the one upon which the local police and prosecutor relied.

The installation, however, is also a story about a handful of alternative, untold stories, and at their center -- Efren's story of innocence. The project attempts to recuperate conflicting narrative possibilities, and to investigate the nature of truth-telling in both media and the law.

The goal of the film is to create a new form of storytelling that unfolds non-linear and in space: to surround the viewers with incompatible slivers of the narrative, and have them piece the story together themselves. Even when added up, however, the various angles of the story form a broken and inconsistent whole. The goal is to generate reasonable doubt about the narrative version used by the prosecutor, and to thus undermine its certainty.

Cinematography and editing assistance: Yoni Goldstein
Additional camera: Steve Maing and Gonzalo Escobar
Sound mixing: Julian Flavin

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences."

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

A new book titled "The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences" by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis was recently released. In the book the authors provide a litany of compelling reasons why the practice of sentencing prisoners to life in prison is misguided and inhumane.

Marc Mauer is the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization based in Washington, DC, that promotes criminal justice reform. He is also the author of "Race to Incarcerate" and "Invisible Punishment." Ashley Nellis is a senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project who has written extensively on the prevalence of life sentences in the United States.


Mauer and Nellis argue that there is no practical or moral justification for a sentence longer than twenty years. Harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, and a broad body of research demonstrates that people "age out" of crime, meaning that lawmakers are wastefully spending significant resources to incarcerate individuals who pose little or no threat to public safety.


They cite the 2017 Model Penal Code of The American Law Institute, a well-regarded, nonpartisan body of legal scholars, which concluded that "terms for single offenses in excess of 20 years are rarely justified on proportionality grounds, and are too long to serve most utilitarian purposes." Its standards are in alignment with the American Bar Association which has called for the length of sentences to be "no longer than needed to serve the purposes for which it was imposed." 


According to Mauer and Nellis, "Lengthy prison terms lead to diminished returns for public safety and distort how criminal justice resources are allocated. ...They also deny the possibility of redemption and reconnection to the community for individuals who no longer resemble the much younger lawbreakers who committed a serious crime for which they are incarcerated."


The book features important profiles of redemption about the lives of people who endured years experiencing the horrors of languishing in prison, were eventually released, and went on to become contributing members of society. It is an important contrast to the steady stream of negative stories depicted in the media which attempt to paint all offenders with the broad brush of failure.


One of the men Mauer writes about in the book is Ahmad Rahman. Rahman was one of my first mentors I corresponded with in prison during and after his incarceration. After having his sentence commuted by the Governor and being released from prison he went on to earn his PhD in African-American and African Studies.


After earning his PhD Rahman later became a professor at the University of Toledo and University of Michigan-Dearborn, respectively. He would surprise me by occasionally mailing me copies of peer-reviewed journal articles and other educational materials to foster my education which he knew I enjoyed reading. Unfortunately, while reading Mauer's story about Rahman in the book, I learned that he died of a heart attack since we last corresponded.


Rahman's story is one among the many success stories of former prisoners who have returned to the community and did great work after serving decades of incarceration. Had he remained in prison for the remainder of his life the world would have been denied the benefit of receiving the gifts he had to offer.


Reviews of the book include:
I can think of no authors more qualified to weigh in on the complex impact of life sentences than Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis. If ever there was a doubt that such sentences are deeply inhumane, one need only read their book. You will find yourself both horrified and deeply, irrevocably, moved." --Heather Ann Thompson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Blood in the Water"


"Sure to have a profound impact on legislators and everyday citizens across America. The Sentencing Project started working on criminal justice reform long before it became fashionable. Combining impeccable research with smart policy recommendations, their work continues to set the gold standard." --James Foreman, Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Locking Up Our Own"


"A blistering indictment of America's practice of sentencing people to die in prison that dares readers to change the way we think about public safety, redemption, and justice. Essential reading for anyone committed to restoring legitimacy to our institutions." --Vanita Gupta president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.


I highly recommend that anyone interested in learning more about the policy of sentencing people to life in prison read this book. It is well-sourced and demonstrates why medieval failed practices of the past are incapable of solving the complex carceral problems of today.


(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner who has been incarcerated 30 years since age fifteen. He is the subject of the new documentary film titled "Half Truths and Full Lies," a social justice advocate, blogger, father, and husband.)