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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Seeds of Humanity Blossom in a Michigan Courtroom

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

In 1993 a 17-year-old Flint youth named Victor Polk was charged, along with four other juveniles, for the armed robbery of a store and shooting death of a man.

He was subsequently convicted by a Genesee County jury for conspiracy to commit armed robbery and as the principal person responsible for the shooting. The four other juveniles were convicted of lesser offenses.

Polk was sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for the shooting and life for the armed robbery. He is one of Michigan's 367 juvenile lifers, people originally sentenced to LWOP for crimes they were convicted of committing when they were minors.

I met Polk when he first entered the prison system at the Michigan Reformatory (MR) in 1994 when he was 18 years old. MR was a medium security prison that housed incarcerated people between the ages of 16 and 25. At the time we met I was 21 and had already been incarcerated five years.

MR is one of only three completely walled prisons in Michigan. It was built in 1877 and its walls resemble those ringing a medieval castle. For decades it was referred to as "gladiator school" because of its reputation for being one of the most dangerous prisons in the state.

I was housed at MR three different times between 1989 and 1995. I first arrived at age 16 and was the youngest person there at the time. It was the first prison I went to after leaving the Reception and Guidance Center, where people initially go from the county jail to be processed into the prison system shortly after they are sentenced.

While at MR I witnessed dozens of stabbings and fights. It was common to observe officers perched on the prison roof carrying loaded rifles. They would occasionally shoot warning shots in an effort to stop people from harming one another if a conflict erupted on the prison yard. Last year a person incarcerated at MR was shot through the shoulder by an officer from the rooftop during an incident involving an assault on the yard.

Polk and I interacted for the first time while participating in a study group together which taught us the value of self-knowledge, self-determination, cultural competence, spirituality, and social justice. It also introduced us to the role that politics and civic engagement play in our lives.

One of our most important takeaway from the group early on was that universes of opportunities are born whenever people open their hearts and minds and become receptive to new ideas.

Polk was a reserved person who displayed a quiet calmness. He was eager to learn, always attentive in our classes, and completed all assigned classwork. During the year we spent at MR together I had the opportunity to witness significant growth in him in just a short period of time.

Outside of class Polk and I would walk and talk on the yard about a variety of subjects. We talked about life in general, sports, music, where we were from, and things occurring inside the prison. He became one of many younger brothers and friends I would come to mentor over the years.

Over time I also came to discover that like me Polk, too, was sentenced to die in prison when he was a juvenile.

I left MR for the final time in 1995 and wouldn't see Polk again for another 26 years. Though we were housed at separate prisons during that time, I monitored the trajectory of his growth and progress by talking to mutual friends who shared space with him at different prisons over the years.

We also occasionally wrote letters to each other before the practice of allowing people incarcerated in Michigan prisons to correspond with one another ended in 2009.

Polk continued to ameliorate his life despite living in a gray wasteland teeming with social toxins which devalues life and progression and is designed to extinguish the human spirit.

He demonstrated that we are all a work in progress. "[P]eople do not exist in an eternal moment ... but are constantly changing their minds, projecting new actions into the world, learning and growing. We cannot reduce them to one moment only, to one crime or one good deed." (Linda Ross Meyer, "Forgiveness and Public Trust," 27 Fordham Urb. L.J. 1515, 1539 (2000)).

Research shows that sustained social isolation and living in an environment comprised of pathological and nihilistic elements can induce a diminution of meaning and self-worth.

Prisons are places where failure and degradation reign. I had seen the lives of incarcerated people ravaged far too many times, particularly the lives of young people, struggling to navigate the minefield of moral decay pervasive behind prison walls.

I was very cognizant that at any point despair or the misguided actions of others could send Polk in a downward spiral of self-destruction if he didn't cultivate resiliency factors and remain self-disciplined.

When we reconnected again in 2019, Polk and I walked together on a prison yard much different than the one we walked on decades earlier. The prison we are at now houses many older people, including the largest population of people serving life sentences in Michigan.

Polk and I caught up about events that had transpired in our lives during the past nearly three decades, including the delays we have both experienced waiting to be resentenced years after the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama.

The Miller v. Alabama case banned mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. At the time of the ruling 2,500 people were impacted.

Trial courts were ordered to review each juvenile lifer case to determine whether their case reflected transient immaturity or they are the rare juvenile lifer who is irreparably corrupt and rehabilitation is impossible.

Four years later the U.S. Supreme Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana made clear how extraordinarily uncommon LWOP sentences should become by emphasizing six separate times throughout the opinion that the sentence is only constitutional for the "rare" juvenile.

The Court also mentioned eight times in the Montgomery ruling that LWOP is barred for all juvenile defendants except for those who have committed homicide, whose crimes reflect "permanent incorrigibility" and "irreparable corruption," and for whom "rehabilitation is impossible."

It added, "[Juvenile lifers] must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."

In short, juvenile offenders who demonstrate the capacity for change and rehabilitation must receive new sentences that allow release consideration at some point in the future.

In speaking to Polk again in 2019, I observed firsthand he had continued evolving into a thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic man. He was still making productive use of his time and using his choice architecture to effectuate transformational change.

Polk refused to allow himself to be defined by his crime or remain trapped in the past. He was now personifying the wisdom of Dr. Ashley E. Lucas, Professor, University of Michigan, who wrote in her illuminating book, "Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration" 145-146 (Methuen Drama: 2020):

"Human beings cannot grow or improve when they are tethered permanently and irrevocably to the past, when things that cannot be changed become the sum total of a person's existence and their potential to be anything else in the future."

I would often find Polk sitting alone on a picnic table or bench on the prison yard during afternoons watching cars drive. It was typical of him: still that reticent person I remembered many years earlier who found tranquility in his inner world.

During one of our conversations, Polk updated me about waiting to return to court to have his case evaluated for resentencing consideration based on the Miller v. Alabama ruling.

We had both experienced a series of delays because prosecutors in our counties were seeking LWOP sentences against us again rather than allowing us to receive new sentences that provide release consideration at some point in the future by the Parole Board.

The victim's wife, son, and daughter in Polk's case also understandably continued to oppose his release as they had since his arrest. The son and daughter were ages seven and five when the crime occurred.

After Polk's 1993 trial the victim's wife found purpose in her pain by becoming a nationally recognized champion for crime victim rights. She transformed her mourning into mission by initiating a statewide citizen petition for juvenile law reforms.

She also used her voice to promote enactment of truth in sentencing laws ensuring that offenders serve their entire minimum sentence before being considered for release.

The year following the murder of her husband she was present at the White House for the signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the 1994 Crime Bill). The historic bill -- comprised of 33 titles -- was designed to reduce violent crime and increase punishment against perpetrators of violent crimes.

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the Crime Bill was and remains the single largest "sweeping piece of federal criminal justice legislation in U.S. history that touched nearly every function or initiative of the criminal justice system." (Richard Rosenfeld, "The 1994 Crime Bill: Legacy and Lessons -- Overview and Reflections," 32 Fed. Sent. R. 147 (2020)).

October 8, 2020 Polk received a court hearing for a judge to consider whether his crime reflected transient immaturity, or he was the rare, irreparably corrupt juvenile offender who can never be rehabilitated. The hearing was presided over by Genesee County Trial Court Judge Elizabeth A. Kelly.

Judge Kelly heard testimony provided by expert witnesses on Polk's behalf and considered a wealth of evidence of his change and rehabilitation. She subsequently issued a ruling February 1, 2021 dismissing the prosecutor's motion seeking a LWOP sentence against him.

Her decision reflected the overwhelming majority of judges who have declared the extreme sentence of LWOP unconstitutional in 94% of juvenile lifer cases being evaluated for resentencing across the state.

Two months later Judge Kelly resentenced Polk on April 13, 2021 to two concurrent sentences of 28 to 60 years for both the homicide and conspiracy to commit armed robbery charges. He was supposed to be resentenced a month earlier but was delayed due to a scheduling conflict.

The judge was permitted to resentence Polk for the underlying felony of conspiracy to commit armed robbery because it was an invalid sentence pursuant to People v. Turner, 505 Mich 954; 936 NW2d 827 (2020).

A sentence is invalid if it is based upon a misconception of law. In the Miller context, a concurrent sentence for a lesser offense is invalid "if there is reason to believe that it was based on a legal misconception that the defendant was required to serve a mandatory sentence of life without parole on the greater offense." (People v. Turner)

At the conclusion of his resentencing hearing the prosecutor asked the judge if the victim's family could speak to Polk off the record. After receiving permission from the judge, the widow, son, and daughter of the victim in his case each spoke to Polk.

Rather than unleashing a salvo of contemptuous words against Polk, the family forgave him and wished him well with his life. They also conveyed that their family member who died was a good man and asked Polk to honor him by living the remainder of his life like their family member would have.

The son told Polk if not for the COVID-19 pandemic social distancing rules being in place he would have given him a hug.

The family demonstrated the embodiment of grace and compassion through their magnanimity and benevolence of their mercy. They were determined not to allow the resentencing hearing to become one more event added to the gallery of their grief.

It was a profoundly powerful and deeply moving moment, particularly in light of their previous seemingly implacable position that Polk remain behind bars until his life expired, and advocating for passage of legislation to ensure that that fate materialized.

The interface occurred between the victim's family and Polk as he stood facing them handcuffed inside of the jury box. Only a short wooden wall separated them from one another.

Polk told me, "The family refused to be imprisoned by anger and hatred anymore that day. They taught me a powerful lesson about forgiveness and humanity that I'll never forget. We cried together in the courtroom and I cried again this morning. It's been overwhelming."

In addition to the aforementioned details he shared with me, we discussed how decades-old trauma is reactivated during court hearings, and the heartbreak of observing the acute affliction that victim family members in our cases have endured due to the horror of violence.

"Sudden losses, unexpected traumas, and intrusive tragedies ... are difficult to handle and process. They can be ... destabilizing and devastating to the whole person, family, organization, or community." (Naji Abi-Hashem, "Grief, Bereavement, and Traumatic Stress," 32 Issues L. & Med. 245 (2017)).

Trauma and its baneful aftermath often shakes human life to its core. Crime survivors are left reeling in agony whenever they or someone they love suffers harm. Pernicious acts against them are indelibly seared into their souls. They "mark their memories forever and chang[e] their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways." (Jeffrey C. Alexander, "The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology" 3 (2003)).

No person should ever have their life desecrated, violently disrupted, or cut short because of another person's virulent behavior. Every life is sacred and deserves to be respected and valued.

Polk went on to share his plans to live with the grandmother who raised him in the same childhood bedroom he slept in prior to his 1993 arrest. His grandmother has preserved the bedroom for him for nearly three decades.

She found it too painful to discard any of its contents all these years. They were tangible memories she clung to that helped her cope with his absence and allowed her to maintain a connection to him.

When asked about his post-release plans, Polk remarked that he wants to work full-time and further his education. He also wants to live a life of service to others by participating in activities to help improve his community in Flint.

According to Polk, "More than anything I want to help my grandmother who stood by and supported me all these years. I want to be there to help her do things like throw out her trash, help her clean the house, and buy her gifts on Mother's Day."

He added, "I want to do the small things many people take for granted. I'm not thinking about big things. I'll be grateful to just live a simple life and celebrate my freedom every day."

Since he has served 27 years in prison Polk will become eligible for parole consideration within the next year. There are no guarantees he will be released right away though.

Because he received a sentence of 28 to 60 years, he only becomes eligible for release consideration after he has served 28 years. However, the Parole Board still has the authority to deny him parole for up to 60 years.

In his 2017 Harvard Law Review article titled, "The President's Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform," President Barack Obama wrote:

"How we treat those who have made mistakes speaks to who we are as a society and is a statement about our values -- about our dedication to fairness, equality, and justice, and about how to protect our families and communities from harm, heal after loss and trauma, and lift back up those among us who have earned a chance at redemption."

When he is eventually paroled Polk will experience freedom for the first time in his adult life. He looks forward to that day and is committed to living a meaningful and productive life of purpose.

Even if his fresh start begins with cleaning out his childhood bedroom and replacing his belongings with items he will now need as an adult mid-way into his 40s.

(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is a blogger, thought leader, social justice changemaker, and Michigan juvenile lifer who has been incarcerated 32 years. You can find links to his writings, TV news/radio/podcast interviews, and activism by visiting