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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.)