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Saturday, January 1, 2022

Efrén Paredes, Jr. Interview Series About Being Re-sentenced to Die in Prison

 

by Necalli Ollin
The Injustice Must End (TIME)
During the last month Efrén Paredes, Jr. responded to questions regarding being resentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for a homicide and robbery he was convicted of when he was a minor. He also addressed a range of other questions about the Berrien County criminal legal system, racial injustice, and the current national conversation about crime and punishment.
Efrén is a 48-year-old Latinx man who was arrested at age 15 and subsequently convicted for the 1989 shooting death of a grocery store manager and robbery of the store in Berrien County, Michigan. He originally received two LWOP sentences for the murder and a parolable life sentence for the armed robbery. Since his arrest he has maintained he did not commit the crime.
Despite the myriad daily challenges he has faced being caged in Michigan prisons for over three decades Efrén continues to evince compelling evidence of his perpetual growth and change. The interview provides insight into his thinking and is a testament to his resilience and refusal to be broken by a system designed to crush the human spirit.
The interview is a must-read for anyone who has an incarcerated loved one serving a LWOP sentence for a crime they were convicted of when they were a minor. Policymakers and members of the general public can benefit from reading the interview to better understand why draconian LWOP sentences for minors is a failed, inhumane policy. It is also a great resource for scholars and educators who are studying and teaching about any of the subjects discussed.
Readers are encouraged to share this message in your social media network. Links to the four-part interview series appear below.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021


 by Necalli Ollin

"Given the robust development of children's rights, it is   absurd to assert that, while juveniles have many rights,   being treated as a juvenile is not one of those rights."   (Cara H. Drinan, Professor of Law, The Catholic   University of America, "The Miller Trilogy and the   Persistence of Extreme Juvenile Sentences," 58 Am. Crim.   L. Rev. 1659, 1671 (2021)).


Friday, September 10, 2021, Berrien County Trial Court Judge Charles LaSata upheld a life without parole (LWOP) sentence for Efrén Paredes, Jr., a 48-year-old Latinx man, for a crime he was convicted of when he was a minor ("juvenile lifer"). It was the first time in the past thirteen months -- since August 2020 -- a Michigan judge had issued the sentence for a juvenile offender. Previous to the ruling the state had been trending away from the extreme sentence for minors. LaSata, a conservative Republican judge, has served on the bench since 2004.

According to statewide data, 251 of the 367 juvenile lifer cases have been resolved as of September 9, 2021. Of that number, 94% have received term of year sentences and only 6% have received a LWOP sentence again. Statewide, juvenile lifers have received sentences averaging 30.5 years. Nationwide the average sentence has been 25 years, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Efrén was originally arrested at age 15 for the March 8, 1989 shooting death and robbery of a grocery store manager in St. Joseph, a small town in southwestern Michigan with a population of 9,214 people. He was the first juvenile in Berrien County to be automatically transferred to circuit court to be tried as an adult after passage of a 1988 Michigan law which authorized prosecutors to do so without a waiver hearing. Only three months after his arrest, Efrén was convicted by a jury composed of eleven white jurors and one African-American juror. He was subsequently sentenced to two LWOP sentences for one count of homicide and a parolable life sentence for one count of armed robbery. Judge Zoe Burkholz presided over the trial and delivered the sentence and, later, retired from the bench.

Three other juveniles were also convicted in the case. Eric Mui, a 17-year-old Asian-American, received two 18-45 year sentences for one count of murder and armed robbery. Alex Mui, a 16-year-old Asian-American, received an 18-45 year sentence for one count of armed robbery. Jason Williamson, a 16-year-old white teen, received a six month sentence in a juvenile facility for one count of armed robbery. All three received plea deals from the prosecutor's office. Eric and Alex Mui were released from prison after serving 16 years in prison and Williamson served six months. Efrén was the only person charged in the case who went to trial.

U.S. SUPREME COURT INTERVENES

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in 2012, Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. Four years later in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the high court made the Miller ruling retroactive and applicable to juvenile offenders already serving the sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court also ordered that all juvenile offenders impacted by the ruling have their cases reviewed by a trial court judge from the respective county they were convicted in for resentencing consideration.

In 2016, then-Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic filed a motion with the trial court seeking to reinstate a LWOP sentence in Efrén's case. Sepic had originally prosecuted the case more than 32 years ago as an assistant prosecutor.

In 2020, Sepic retired as the county prosecutor. After his retirement, the newly elected county prosecutor, Steve Pierangeli, swore Sepic in as an assistant prosecutor so he could continue working on Efrén's case. In a December 30, 2020 interview with the local newspaper, The Herald-Palladium, Sepic referred to Efrén's case as the most memorable of his career. He expressed his fixation with the case despite there being a number of other cases in the county during the past 32 years involving multiple homicides and other charges.

October 5-6, 2020, LaSata held a two-day hearing for Efrén and his legal team to present evidence to the court as to why Efrén should receive a term of year sentence rather than LWOP. At the hearing, several witnesses testified on Efrén's behalf, presenting an abundance of compelling anecdotal evidence of his growth, change, and rehabilitation. Other documentation was presented showing a wide range of programs he has successfully completed during his three decades of incarceration. Sepic was allowed to present evidence at the hearing as to why he felt a LWOP sentence was justified.

ELIGIBILITY FOR LWOP SENTENCES

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in its Miller v. Alabama ruling that "incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth." (Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 472-473 (2012) (quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 72-73 (2010)). The Court later added "Miller [v. Alabama] determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the 'rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption' or 'permanent incorrigibility.'" (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 733-734 (2016) (quoting Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479-80 (2012)). "Permanent incorrigibility" in this context is defined as "rare" juvenile offenders "who exhibit such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is IMPOSSIBLE ..." and they are forever incapable of change. (emphasis added) (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 733-34 (2016)).

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "The same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults -- their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity -- make them less likely to consider potential punishment." (Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 472 (2012)).

"[O]rdinary adolescent development diminishes the likelihood that a juvenile offender 'forever will be a danger to society.' (Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460. 472 (2012) (quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 72 (2010)." (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 733 (2016)).

The Court previously also stated that "[t]he evolving nature of their identities undermines the conclusion that ANY juvenile [is] 'irretrievably depraved in character.'" (emphasis added) (Roper v. Simmons, 125 S. Ct. 1183, 1195 (2005) (quoting Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 835 (1988)).

SENTENCING DISPARITIES

The September 10th LaSata ruling underscores glaringly obvious racial bias and disparate treatment between the way he applied applicable U.S. Supreme Court opinions in the cases of the two juvenile lifers on his docket.

Mark Abbatoy, a white male who was 17 at the time of his arrest, was the other juvenile lifer whose case LaSata reviewed. A brief overview of the details of the crimes Efrén and Abbatoy were convicted of is as follows:

Efrén was convicted of shooting a store manager four times and robbing the store where he and the victim were both employed. The victim was a 28-year-old white male named Richard Tetzlaff. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime and no arrests were made in connection with the crime until a week after it occurred. Sepic relied heavily on the testimony of 16-year-old Alex Mui to convict Efrén. Mui, who admitted being involved in the crime, received a plea deal from Sepic to drop his murder charge in exchange for agreeing to testify against Efrén. Four alibi witnesses have attested to Efrén's whereabouts at the time the crime was committed which is corroborated by forensic evidence that disproves he committed the crime. In recent years new witnesses have also provided sworn affidavits that Mui and others convicted in the case admitted to lying about Efrén's involvement in the crime to evade murder charges. Since his March 15, 1989 arrest Efrén has maintained his innocence and denied any involvement in the crime.

The circumstances of the Abbatoy crime were that he and another 17-year-old killed Abbatoy's mother in 1997 so they could steal her car. According to a March 22, 2021 court hearing transcript in the Abbatoy case, LaSata described the tragic event by stating: "Defendant [Abbatoy] was incredibly brutal and depraved. The defendant beat [the victim] with a shovel for ten to fifteen minutes. The defendant struck the victim at least ten times with a shovel. ... Three to four blows [were] so forceful that they fractured her skull embedding nine fragments of bone into her brain." LaSata added that while the victim was being beaten, Abbatoy ripped the phone from the wall so she couldn't call anyone for help.

When juxtaposing the Efrén and Abbatoy cases there are other notable differences, such as the following:

Court records show Efrén had no juvenile adjudications prior to the crime he is serving time in prison for. Abbatoy had three previous juvenile adjudications. According to Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) records, Efrén has received 19 misconduct reports in 32.5 years (an average of 0.06 per year) while Abbatoy has accrued 51 misconduct reports in 24 years (an average of 2.2 per year).MDOC data reflects that the average person incarcerated in a Michigan prison averages 2.2 misconduct reports per year. Abbatoy was in the average range and Efrén fell far below the range.

Evidence was also presented in court by Efrén's legal team that the average number of misconduct reports received by juvenile lifers from Berrien County who have been resentenced is 34.5. One Berrien County juvenile lifer received 80 misconduct reports and was not resentenced to LWOP.During their mitigation court hearings, attorneys for Efrén and Abbatoy presented anecdotal and documented evidence of accomplishments and rehabilitation during their incarceration.

Efrén's legal team was able to submit substantially more evidence in this regard, however, because of his successful completion of more educational, vocational, and counseling programs since he has been incarcerated eight years longer than Abbatoy.

Both Efrén and Abbatoy are also housed in the lowest security level allowed in the MDOC due to the sentences they are serving (i.e., Level 2). During Abbatoy's March 22 court hearing, LaSata specifically referenced this on the record as one of the reasons he granted Abbatoy a term of year sentence.

RECENT MICH. APPELLATE COURT RULING

Attorneys in both Efrén's case and the Abbatoy case also cited a published Michigan Court of Appeals ruling made earlier this year named People v. Bennett, 2021 Mich. App. LEXIS 472. In 1972, David Bennett, age 17, was convicted of stabbing a woman in Wayne County dozens of times resulting in her death and sentenced to LWOP. Bennett was subsequently resentenced to LWOP on June 5, 2020 by a Wayne County trial court judge who reviewed the case to consider possible resentencing pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court Miller v. Alabama ruling.

The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court ruling in the Bennett case on January 21, 2021. In doing so the appeals court stated that trial courts must decide "whether [a] defendant 'was and would remain WHOLLY incapable of rehabilitation for THE REMAINDER OF HIS LIFE[.]'" (emphasis added) Failure to do so constitutes an abuse of discretion subject to reversal. (People v. Bennett, at *9) (quoting People v. Garay, 320 Mich. App. 29, 49 (2017)).

The Bennett ruling provided lower courts with clear guidance about evaluating juvenile lifer cases for capacity for change and rehabilitation.

According to the Michigan Court of Appeals, "'rehabilitation' involves the successful completion of vocational, education, OR counseling programs designed to enable a prisoner to lead a useful life, free of crime, when released." (emphasis added) (People v. Bennett, at *19).

Efrén's legal team provided the court a robust body of anecdotal and documented evidence of his successful completion of each of these examples a multiplicity of times. They also provided results from psychological tests and actuarial risk assessment instruments that reflect Efrén poses a low risk of violence or recidivism if released.

Letters of support from three retired MDOC career professionals with decades of corrections experience (i.e., a former Warden, corrections officer, and Efrén's employer of thirteen years) attesting to his capacity for change and rehabilitation, as well as letters from multiple professors from universities who taught classes Efrén participated in at various prisons, were provided to the court as well.

The Michigan Court of Appeals stated in the Bennett case "[t]o the extent that the resentencing court made a factual finding regarding Bennett's risk of reoffending, it was clearly erroneous because no evidence supported it. Nor did any evidence support any other ground for Bennett's continued incarceration."

The court concluded, "Accordingly, we reverse and remand for resentencing to a term of years based on the present record and consistent with MCL 769.25(9). We further instruct that the resentencing be conducted with all deliberate speed." (People v. Bennett, at *30-*31).

At Abbatoy's March 22, 2021 court hearing, LaSata stated on the record that the Bennett ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals is "a published decision binding on this court." LaSata would go on to properly apply U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the Bennett opinion to the Abbatoy case and issue a fair ruling. He dismissed retired prosecutor Sepic's motion seeking a LWOP sentence against Abbatoy and agreed to resentence him to a term of years.

LASATA RULES IN EFREN'S CASE

Less than six months after issuing his principled ruling in the Abbatoy case, LaSata abandoned U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the Bennett decision by issuing an unintelligible ruling upholding a LWOP sentence in Efrén's case. Much of the oral opinion delivered by LaSata parroted retired prosecutor Sepic's previous talking points related to the case. LaSata began his ruling by stating that part of his reason for upholding a LWOP sentence in Efrén's case is that he has maintained his innocence since the time of arrest.

The Michigan Supreme Court has previously ruled that "a court cannot base its sentence EVEN IN PART on the defendant's refusal to admit guilt." (emphasis added) (People v. Hatchett, 477 Mich. 1061 (2009); People v. Jackson, 474 Mich. 996 (2006)). The state's high court has also held that "[i]t is a violation of due process to punish a person for asserting a protected statutory or constitutional right." (People v. Ryan, 451 Mich. 30, 35 (1996)).

The case of a Berrien County man named Corey Quentin McCall was vacated on June 25, 2021 and he was released after spending 16 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. LaSata was the district court judge responsible for a 2005 ruling that found there was sufficient evidence to bound the McCall case over to the circuit court to be tried for three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

Without question LaSata is acutely aware that errors occur in the criminal justice system. His own decision-making resulted in a wrongful conviction. Despite this experience, however, LaSata elected to dismiss the possibility that errors occurred in Efrén's case and he ruled against him for asserting his constitutional right to maintain his innocence.

Another error LaSata committed in Efrén's case was citing the circumstances of the crime as a reason to justify a LWOP sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that the heinousness of a crime cannot by itself be offered as evidence of the character of the juvenile. The high court explained that looking at the offense alone would present an "'unacceptable likelihood ... that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments." (Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 78 (2010) (quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 572 (2005)). The Court also affirmed "the truth of [Miller v. Alabama's] central intuition -- that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change." (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 736 (2016)).

Another issue LaSata had to consider was whether Efrén being 15 years old at the time of arrest was a mitigating factor that counseled against a LWOP sentence in his case. LaSata not only ignored U.S. Supreme Court precedent regarding this factor, his reasoning for concluding that Efrén's age was not a mitigating factor was also divorced from common sense, extensive adolescent development research, and brain science that informs us children possess an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that "the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weight ..." in assessing culpability. (Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 116 (1982)). Adolescents are more prone to risk-taking and impulsivity -- traits that likely influence their criminal conduct -- and are not yet mature enough to anticipate the future consequences of their actions. (Laurence Steinberg et al, "Age Differences in Future Orientation and Delay Discounting," 80 Child Dev. 28, 35 (2009)). The prefrontal cortex is essential for both impulse control and decision-making in complex or high-stress situations and "the fact remains that young people between the ages of eight and twenty-five do not have fully-developed capacity to control impulses and make rational choices." (David Pimentel, "The Widening Maturity Gap: Trying and Punishing Juveniles As Adults in An Era of Extended Adolescence," 46 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 71, 84 (2013)). The U.S. Supreme Court stated that "because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform ... 'they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.'" (Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 471 (2012), (quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010)).

While issuing his ruling, LaSata cited decades-old prison rule infractions and alleged violations to justify his decision as well. Some included allegations of misconduct that was not substantiated by MDOC reports or that have been disproven. Included in LaSata's list of infractions was that Efrén fathered a child nearly twelve years ago with a former staff member who was employed at a prison where he was being housed at the time. Efrén and his child's mother subsequently became married and remain so today. According to LaSata, this human act between two consenting adults "violated all kinds of prison rules." Efrén, however, never received a misconduct report for any rule violation related to the incident by MDOC staff.

Richard Stapleton, a retired MDOC Hearings Division Administrator, testified at Efrén's October 2020 mitigation hearing that any misconduct allegations in his file which were not accompanied by official misconduct reports should have been purged from the file. Therefore, the allegations should not have been considered by the court during the mitigation process.

A vast majority of the more than 200 juvenile lifers who have been resentenced received dozens of misconduct reports while incarcerated and it did not prevent judges from replacing their LWOP sentences with term of year sentences. "'A sentencing judge's exercise of discretion must be based on accurate information.' (People v. Smith, 423 Mich. 427, 448; 378 NW2d 384 (1985)). 'This is a due process requirement.' (People v. Miles, 454 Mich 90, 100; 559 NW2d 299 (1997))." (People v. Bennett, *30) Ignoring the corrections expert's testimony and defiantly using erroneous and inaccurate information to uphold a LWOP sentence in Efrén's case was a clear abuse of discretion.

LaSata also begrudgingly acknowledged a number of Efrén's accomplishments throughout his incarceration, as well as his large support system. But while he described Efrén as "intelligent, charismatic, and diligent," he also characterized him as manipulative. He dismissed three decades of Efrén completing rehabilitative programming, enriching the lives of others, participating in therapeutic counseling for the past eleven years, and numerous other achievements by theorizing it "may have" all been simply to receive "opportunities." Part of the reason the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the LWOP sentence in the Bennett case was that the sentencing court "resorted to a purely theoretical and uncertain prediction" about his future dangerousness. (People v. Bennett, at *30). As he delivered his ruling LaSata never presented a modicum of evidence that Efrén "was and would remain WHOLLY incapable of rehabilitation for THE REMAINDER OF HIS LIFE[.]" (emphasis added) (People v. Bennett, at *9) (quoting People v. Garay, 320 Mich. App. 29, 49 (2017)).

LASATA UNDERSCORES RACIAL INJUSTICE

Seated from the perch of his position of privilege, LaSata punctuated the bias he exhibited in Efrén's case by attempting to manufacture the sordid false narrative that racial injustice and the mistreatment of people of color has never existed in St. Joseph. During his September 10 ruling, LaSata remarked he did not believe Efrén's claim of ever being subjected to episodes of ethnic slurs, bullying, and shaming growing up as a brown boy in a majority white community. The year of Efrén's arrest the city of St. Joseph was 94% white residents. Blacks made up 3% of the population and the Latinx population was a mere one percent.

LaSata made his abysmal statement bereft of any evidence being presented in court by the prosecutor's office to disprove the anti-brown or Latinx experiences Efrén encountered growing up due to his ethnicity. His statement was an insult to people of color and offended the sensibilities of any person who has not been tone deaf to the racial reckoning the nation has been undergoing during the past year since the police killing of George Floyd. It is also acutely obvious to any person of color who has ever visited or lived in the St. Joseph area, which also happens to be home to the Berrien County Courthouse and jail.

This was all very personal for LaSata who served as a commissioner for the city of St. Joseph from 1991 to 1995. He was elected as mayor of the city from 1995 to 1998 and also served in the Michigan House of Representatives for the district from 1999 to 2005. His wife, Kimberley LaSata, currently serves the district in the Michigan State Senate.

Berrien County has seated white judges on the bench and white males have occupied the prosecutor's office since its inception. This is true of other Michigan counties as well which has vastly contributed to the acute racial sentencing disparities. "Children of color are 27% of the child population [in Michigan] and 71% of children serving LWOP sentences." (Connie de la Vega & Michelle Leighton, "Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and Practice," 42 U.S.F. L. Rev. 983, 994 (2008)).

To many folks, LaSata's ruling in Efrén's case was a modern day legal lynching.

UNLOCKING OPPORTUNITIES FOR OTHERS

While LaSata's refusal to render a fair ruling was designed to deny Efrén a meaningful opportunity for release consideration, the judge also set in motion a chain of events likely to produce profound unintended consequences.

Not only did LaSata carve out a clear path for Michigan appellate courts to vacate his unwarranted ruling, he also set the stage for Efrén's defense team to mount a constitutional challenge to MCL 769.25(a), the law that allows sentencing courts to condemn juvenile offenders to prison for life. He proved that some sentencing bodies -- though in the minority -- will go rogue and refuse to fairly apply landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings to juvenile lifer cases being reviewed for resentencing consideration. Some will also lack the moral courage to do so. LaSata's nod to the prosecutor's office could now result in abolishing a LWOP sentence not only for Efrén but also for the other remaining juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing hearings who could benefit from a favorable appellate ruling in his case.

Since 2012, thirty-one states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia have abandoned the practice of sentencing children to die in prison or have no juvenile offenders serving a LWOP sentence according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "[O]nly thirteen states have not substantially narrowed the application of LWOP to juveniles through statutory reform or by a lack of sentencing in practice." (Elizabeth C. Kingston, "Validating Montgomery's Recharacterization of Miller: An End to LWOP for Juveniles," 38 U. La Verne L. Rev. 23, 51 (2016)). A growing consensus of states have embraced the U.S. Supreme Court's view that LWOP sentences for juveniles are inhumane, draconian, and "akin to the death penalty." (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2466 (2012)).

FOREVER INCAPABLE OF CHANGE?

"Prominent leaders have spoken publicly about the cruelty, inhumanity, and general senselessness of juvenile LWOP in the years since the Miller [v. Alabama] decision." (Cara H. Drinan, Professor of Law, The Catholic University of America, "The Miller Revolution," 101 Iowa L. Rev. 1787, 1831-1832 (2016)).

According to Linda Ross Meyer, author of "Forgiveness and Public Trust," 27 Fordham Urb. L.J. 1515, 1539 (2000): "[P]eople do not exist in an eternal moment ... [they] 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."

Behavioral experts have found that no evidence exists that personality ever ceases to change during a person's lifetime. (Avshalom Caspi & Brent W. Roberts, "Personality Development Across the Life Course," 12 Psychol. Inquiry 49, 51 (2001)).

Evidence also exists that personality traits change gradually and systematically throughout the life span, sometimes more after age 30 than before. (Sanjay Srivastava et al., "Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood," 84 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 1041, 1051 (2003)).

The fact that "most mean-level personality-trait change occurs between ages [twenty] and [forty] ... opens a new area of focus in developmental science." The research further demonstrates that humans remain an "open system" throughout life, susceptible to change at the fundamental level of personality. (Brent W. Roberts & Daniel Mroczek, "Personality Trait Chance in Adulthood," 17 Current Directions Psychol. Sci. 31, 33 (2008)).

According to a 2009 amicus brief from the American Psychological Association et al., "Brain maturation continues into the mid-twenties and the brain is plastic and always changing." (Brief for the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association of Social Workers, and Mental Health America as Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioners at 24-27, Graham v. Florida, 558 U.S. 811 (2009) (Nos. 08-7412, 08-7621, 2009 WL 2236778)).

WOEFULLY MISSING THE MARK

At the conclusion of Efrén's September 10 court ruling LaSata stated, "I'll be able to sleep well tonight knowing this case is being appealed." LaSata knew he abjectly failed to discharge the duties of his office and fairly apply the law in Efrén's case which resulted in a grave miscarriage of justice. By wilfully rendering an arbitrary and unreasonable ruling he abdicated his judicial responsibility to the appellate court to properly resolve the case.

In his address to the delegates of the International Association of Penal Law on October 23, 2014 Pope Francis stated:

"All Christians and men of good will are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom. And I link this to life imprisonment. A short time ago the life sentence was removed from the Vatican's Criminal Code. A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise."

Most conservative Republican judges take pride in being guided by their faith. They are also textualists who have a reverence for constitutional original meaning. Textualism is supposed to be politically neutral and offer protection against ideological judgement as a way to separate the law from politics. LaSata chose to weaponize the law and betray his fidelity to principles of conservatism in Efrén's case by replacing them with his own brand of gross judicial negligence that ignores the concept of redemption and the inherent dignity of young people. Fortunately there are appellate courts to review decisions rendered by sentencing bodies who violate their oath of office and put politics before the rule of law. The Judicial Tenure Commission is tasked with reviewing claims of judicial misconduct as well.

DESERVING OF SECOND CHANCE

In her academic journal article titled "All But the Rarest of Children," 62 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol'y 227, 242 (2020), author Allison M. Scoggin argues: "[T]he [U.S. Supreme] Court insists that only 'the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is IMPOSSIBLE and life without parole is justified' can be sentenced to life without parole. [Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 733 (2016)]. Thus, if there is ANY evidence that the offender could mature or be rehabilitated over time -- and the Court points out that 'all but the rarest of children' is capable of such growth [Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 726 (2016)] ] -- a life without parole sentence is disproportionate and therefore unconstitutional." (emphasis added).

During the past 32 years Efrén has utilized his choice architecture and tireless pursuit of education to continue expanding his horizons, building understanding of the wider world, honing analytical and communication skills, and fostering responsibilities beyond self. The abundance of anecdotal and documented evidence of Efrén's enormous capacity for growth, change, and rehabilitation disqualifies him as a candidate for a LWOP sentence. It is also supported by myriad adolescent development and brain science studies that directly contradicts LaSata's court ruling in Efrén's case. Simply disliking Efrén or having disdain for him doesn't make him any less capable of change and rehabilitation.

After having spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars Efrén deserves to receive a term of year sentence like the overwhelming majority -- ninety-four percent -- of other similarly situated juvenile lifers who have been resentenced across the state.

The Michigan Court of Appeals made it abundantly clear in the Bennett case that "'[i]rreparable corruption,' [i.e., forever having no capacity for change] is the ONLY ground [the U.S. Supreme Court] specifically identified for imposing a life-without-parole sentence [for a juvenile offender]. See Miller [v. Alabama], 567 U.S. at 479 (2012)." (emphasis added) (People v. Bennett, at *10).

If the Bennett ruling is, in the words of LaSata, "a published decision binding on this court" which lead to him rejecting a LWOP sentence in the Abbatoy case, it is likewise "binding" on him to fairly, equally, and proportionally reach the same ruling in Efrén's case as well.

The appellate court should jettison LaSata's irrational and unconstitutional ruling in Efrén's case as it did in the Bennett case when it held: "We reverse and remand for resentencing to a term of years based on the present record and consistent with MCL 769.25(9). We further instruct that the resentencing be conducted with all deliberate speed." (People v. Bennett, at *30-*31).

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Source: http://fb.com/Free.Efren.

To read an earlier series titled "Unpacking the Notion of Rehabilitation in the Case of Efrén Paredes, Jr. (Part 1-5)" outlining additional evidence and reasons he is not a candidate for a LWOP sentence you can visit the following links:

Part 1 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10158667078805189&id=37153800188

Part 2 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10158677305845189&id=37153800188

Part 3 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10158685143250189&id=37153800188

Part 4 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10158704867365189&id=37153800188

Part 5 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10158734085285189&id=37153800188

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Delta Variant Infiltrating Michigan Prisons

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

"No person should fear for his or her life each day as a result of the carelessness to basic human needs." (Ariel Berkowitz, "(Un)Masking the Truth -- The Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Prisoners Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, 37 Touro L. Rev. 347, 373 (2021)).

In an August 3, 2021 memorandum sent to people exiled in its carceral facilities Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Central Office staff wrote:

"We have begun to see an uptick in prisoner [COVID-19] cases after having just two positive cases among the prisoner population this past weekend. Since Friday, there have been 25 positive cases at nine facilities."

A subsequent memorandum revealed that positive tests at two of the prisons were false positives. It attributed the errors to defective reagents used during the testing process. Despite the errors the virus still quickly reemerged in seven prisons in a short span of time. Since then the MDOC has issued no new information regarding infection updates to people locked away in its prisons.

The MDOC website, however, paints a different picture of the problem. According to the latest data available to the public on August 18, 2021 an additional 525 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Michigan prisons during the past fourteen days. An average case count of 37.5 per day.

The numbers are eerily reminiscent of March 2020 when the virus began exploding in the state's carceral facilities. The first wave left an astonishing 78% of people incarcerated in MDOC prisons infected and 143 people succumbed to the biological contagion.

The unsettling new data reveals an ominous COVID-19 recrudescence infiltrating the state's carceral facilities which the pandemic has previously exposed are bacteria factories for replication of infectious disease.

To the outside observer the number of new infections may not seem like a large number. In a sea of people living in unsanitary crowded spaces they are unable to properly social distance in, however, the number represents a viral tinderbox.

In an article titled, "Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19," Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law, wrote:

"From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was clear that the novel coronavirus posed an outsized danger to the more than two million people locked inside America's prisons and jails."

She added, "By summer, infection rates in state and federal prisons dwarfed national rates by a ratio of 5.5 to 1, and, accounting for age, people in prison were dying at three times the rate of society as a whole." ("Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19," 87 U. Chi. L. Rev. Online 4 (2020)).

"[T]he largest clusters of infection have occurred within prisons and jails, distantly followed by meatpacking plants and nursing homes. All five of the top five clusters of COVID-19 infections around the country are in carceral facilities[.]" (Camila Strassle & Benjamin E. Berkman, "Prisons and Pandemics," 57 San Diego l. Rev. 1083, 1084 (2020)).

According to Eda Katharine Tinto and Jenny Roberts, authors of "Expanding Compassion Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic," 18 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 575, 577 (2021): "By January 26, 2021, more than 365,000 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19, and 2,314 prisoners died as a result. Infection rates within prisons remain high and continue to rise."

This staggering number made prisons the epicenter of the pandemic and amounted to more deaths of incarcerated people "than has been produced by carrying out formal death sentences in the United States for the entire period from 2001 to 2020." (Douglas A. Berman, "The New Death Penalty: COVID Has Now Killed More US Prisoners in Months Than the US Death Penalty Has in the Last Two Decades," Sent'g L. & Pol'y (Aug. 23, 2020, 11:23 AM)).

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

The viral spread occurring inside America's fortresses of seclusion has been deliberately obscured from the public consciousness in an effort to prevent people from recognizing the sheer danger prisons present to human life.

It has also been hushed to veil the morally reprehensible refusal of lawmakers to create a pathway to reduce the population density in carceral facilities as a strategy to obviate a deadly deluge of disease transmission.

It is lost on them that "[t]he contagion-rich environment of jail and prison means a detained [person] may never come home, and [her/his] community may suffer the long-term effects of his permanent absence." (Jenny E. Carroll, "Safety, Crisis, and Criminal Law," 52 Ariz. St. L.J. 769, 788 (2020)).

Media reporting, academic journal articles, and anecdotal accounts have shined a searing light on the painful fact that state officials were slow to respond to protecting people in prisons when the pandemic hit eighteen months ago.

Michigan prisons became ravaged by the virus during a feckless period of inaction before people were provided with masks, began being tested for COVID-19, and provided adequate medical care. Many people were initially returned to their housing units after reporting symptoms of the airborne communicable disease which engendered further spread of infection.

It also took weeks before the practice of having hundreds of people eating closely together in crowded dining halls was suspended at several prisons and meals were safely distributed to people in containers to consume in their living area.

DELTA VARIANT ENTERS THE PICTURE

The latter is of substantial importance because the COVID-19 Delta variant, which is primarily transmitted through proximity and shared air, has a viral load one thousand times greater than the first iteration of the disease.

It is exponentially more easily transmissible than the original wild type Coronavirus and is particularly pernicious because of its ability to turn off a person's immune system long enough to overwhelm them with infection. 

The Delta variant is raging across the nation and infection rates continue to climb. It now accounts for 99% of U.S. COVID-19 cases. August 17, 2021 the country reached 139,872 average positive daily infections, a 600% spike in cases in just the past month, according to data obtained from Johns Hopkins University.

The CDC recently reported that there are currently 80,000 people being hospitalized nationwide due to complications from COVID-19 -- the highest number since February. There were also over 5,000 deaths during the past week, averaging 820 per day. It is a 57% increase from the previous week and more than triple the number of deaths in early July.

As of August 4, 2021 only 64% of people incarcerated in Michigan prisons have been vaccinated, according to MDOC data. Over 11,000 -- or one-third -- of the prison population remains unvaccinated and highly susceptible to contracting/recontracting COVID-19.

This is very troubling in light of a recent CDC study of an outbreak in Massachusetts which found there was no significant difference between the COVID-19 viral loads of fully vaccinated people and those of unvaccinated people.

Last week CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky stated we can expect to see tens of thousands of Delta variant breakthrough cases, meaning fully vaccinated people being infected with the virus. As of today there have been 248,000 breakthrough cases nationwide.

These facts, coupled with the Delta variant's screaming level of transmission and virulent viral load, vastly elevate the threat of a COVID-19 firestorm sweeping through the carceral system once again.

Some argue vaccinations will help reduce hospitalizations and deaths for those who contract the disease. While partially true, it ignores the reality that it won't prevent them from the substantial risk of experiencing "long COVID," a term commonly referred to as long-term physical, psychiatric, and neurological effects.

"Studies estimate that long COVID may affect between 10 percent and 30 percent of adults infected with the [C]oronavirus. ... Some symptoms resemble aftereffects of concussions and other brain injuries." (Pam Belluck, "This Is Really Scary," The New York Times (Aug. 8, 2021)).

In a disturbing study published in The Lancet medical journal last month researchers reported finding that COVID-19 can cause 200 symptoms in ten different bodily organs. In places like prisons that act as vectors or hotspots for transmission of the virus the potential for this to occur is far greater than for members of the general public.

LIVING IN PRISON DURING THE COVID-19 ERA

Unlike vaccinated people in the free world who can socially distance in carceral facilities it's a virtual impossibility to do in most areas, diminishing vaccine protection. "The physical set-up of virtually all prisons is inherently conducive to the spread of COVID-19." (Tinto & Roberts, supra at 576).

The confluence of a respiratory pathogen in congregant living conditions plagued by overcrowding, poor ventilation, people eating in close proximity to one another in dining halls, and using shared utilities like showers, toilets, and sinks are a lethal combination creating a super-spreader environment. (See Elizabeth Barnert et al., "Prisons: Amplifiers of the COVID-19 Pandemic Hiding in Plain Sight," 110 AJPH 964 (2020)).

In many housing units dozens of people sleep close to one another in bunk beds or in barracks-style open bay areas only a few feet apart.

Vulnerable people in carceral facilities are unable to extricate themselves from being bathed in COVID-19 and they are defenseless to protect themselves with effective masks. "In dramatic fashion, the pandemic illuminates the urgent need to drastically reduce the number of people behind bars in prisons and jails." (Kristen Nelson & Jeanne Segil, "The Pandemic as a Portal," 98 Denv. L. Rev. 337, 340 (2021)).

A year ago I sounded the alarm about the propensity for a COVID-19 surge in Michigan prisons in a series of articles before the virus engulfed the prison system. Television, radio, print, and online news media outlets echoed this reporting as well.

To protect the health and safety of people incarcerated in Michigan prisons the MDOC needs to end double-bunking, separate all beds in congregant living areas by six feet, and provide incarcerated people with proper life-saving N95 masks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other respected epidemiologists argue that N95 masks are the only masks that can effectively protect someone from the Delta variant.

Three-layered masks are helpful but not as effective as N95 masks. This is especially true in areas where virus transmission is particularly high like in carceral facilities.

In a recent CNN interview Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, stated that as a general rule if you can smell smoke through a mask you're wearing the mask is too porous to effectively protect against the Delta variant.

COVID-19 KNOWS NO BORDERS

"From a global perspective, coronavirus is an issue that impacts and threatens us all." (U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson & Lawrence J. Trautman, "The Demographics of Death: An Early Look at COVID-19, Cultural and Racial Bias in America," 48 Hastings Const. L.Q. 357, 361 (2021)).

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 can "act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious disease within and beyond prisons." (Regional Office for Eur., World Health Org., "Prevention and Control of COVID-19 in Prisons and Other Places of Detention" 1 (2020)).

An airborne virus like COVID-19 flourishes in carceral facilities. It also has the capacity to have a profound spillover effect in neighboring cities and towns, thereby becoming a dangerous driver of community spread. Employees enter prisons by the thousands and return to their communities each day where they live and interact with family and friends.

"If COVID has taught us anything, it is that our collective failure to recognize the embeddedness of carceral institutions in the broader community and to ensure humane conditions for those individuals living inside is not only cruel but also self-defeating. When people are incarcerated, they do not disappear. Despite high walls, the facilities to which they are removed are still very much within society itself." (Dolovich, supra at 34)

RECOGNIZING HUMAN DECENCY

Nationwide demonstrations during the summer of 2020 around the disproportionate police killings of unarmed people of color sparked serious conversations about racial injustice. They also revealed the brutal impact prisons have on the lives of the 2.3 million people they cage.

The use of incarceration as the primary instrument of social control has been normalized far too long. The false and persistent narratives of people behind bars have demonized and reduced them to their worst mistake. This alienation or "othering" characterizes them as unworthy or incapable of redemption and subsequently leads to their objectification.

According to James M. Binnall, author of the article, "Respecting Beasts: The Dehumanizing Quality of the Modern Prison and an Unusual Model for Penal Reform," 17 J.L. & Pol'y 161, 162 (2008)): "Almost unanimously, the managerial regimes that operate today's prisons view prisoners as commodities, unworthy of rehabilitative efforts."

There is a direct through line between this distorted thinking and the dehumanization of incarcerated people. The absence of compassion results in the devaluing of life and protracted human suffering.

This nexus not only ignores the inherent dignity of people trapped in prisons, it also prevents lawmakers and carceral facility administrators from reducing the crowded living conditions that serve as incubators for the proliferation of deadly diseases like COVID-19.

As the world was fixated on the Derek Chauvin trial in the Spring of 2021, the Minnesota police officer charged with the death of George Floyd, one of the most repeated refrains the world heard was "when a person is in the custody of law enforcement, they are in their care."

The same can be said about the State of Michigan and MDOC -- the people in their custody are in their care.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

If the past is prologue we know that "the price of inaction given the extreme vulnerability of prisons and jails to the spread of infectious diseases has never been higher." (Mirko Bagaric, Peter Isham & Jennifer Svilar, "The Increased Exposure to Coronavirus (COVID-19) for Prisoners Justifies Early Release" 48 Pepp. L. Rev. 121, 141 (2021)).

The MDOC's silence about the rise of positive COVID-19 tests in Michigan prisons is dangerously misleading incarcerated people to believe they are not entering a new surge of positive infections and making them less fearful about contracting the virus.

Previous to its August 4, 2021 message it had been months since the MDOC had engaged in outreach with incarcerated people to discuss COVID-19 or encourage vaccinations despite low vaccination numbers behind bars.

The absence of an MDOC vaccine messaging campaign has prevented potentially thousands of immunizations and diminished their value. It has likely also produced the unintended consequence of contributing to an increase of viral transmission in prisons.

Many hope that lawmakers and MDOC administrators learned from the first wave of the pandemic and aren't recklessly naive to believe that making the same mistakes will produce different results.

They need to also course-correct about being silent regarding rising infection numbers with the incarcerated population and engage in a robust vaccine outreach campaign to help stem further virus transmission..

The first time the MDOC had a playbook for protecting incarcerated people from a contagious airborne disease pandemic and didn't use it (i.e., Exec. Office of the President of the United States, "Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents" (2016)).

The document produced by the Obama administration three years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic offered "guidelines to correctional facilities regarding how to stop the spread of the virus and how to deal with issues such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the use of hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol content." (Gabriela M. Guzman, "An International Comparative Study of the United States, the Netherlands, and Mexico: Pandemic Responses in Prisons and Correctional Institutions During the 1918 Spanish Flu and the Era of COVID-19," 27 ILSA J. Int'l & Comp. L. 343, 358 (2021)).

Eighteen months -- and 26,731 incarcerated people infected with COVID-19 later -- state actors now have a dearth of scientific and experiential data and resources to inform their decision-making.

Not being animated to implement every available public health measure to prevent the specter of another health catastrophe inside the state's prisons will not only be carelessly negligent, it will be deliberately indifferent and tantamount to complicity.

(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is a journalist and social justice changemaker who has been incarcerated in Michigan for 32 years. He works at the intersection of criminal penal reform, racial justice, and movement-building. You can find links to his writings, TV news/radio/podcast interviews, and activism by visiting http://fb.com/Free.Efren.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Praise for "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration" by Reuben Jonathan Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2021)

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

"[T]his is how social death works: You become a nonperson, someone whose existence is superfluous. You're invisible, hidden in some cage just outside the city or within it or perhaps hundreds of miles from home. The effects are all the same. You are a number among a bunch of other numbers. You might have a family. You might do great things in your community. You might help others, regularly. You might be a person of great faith. But you are dead to the world that matters to you most. The prison robs you of your importance."

The above quote is from Reuben Jonathan Miller's book titled "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration." Miller is a sociologist, criminologist, social worker, and University of Chicago professor.

"Halfway Home" is a searing indictment of the pernicious ways that mass incarceration destabilizes lives by disproportionately demonizing, marginalizing, and warehousing people of color and members of poor and underserved communities.

The book highlights how lawmakers have erected barriers that prevent the 600,000 returning citizens marked by incarceration who are released from prisons each year from succeeding through the creation of 48,000 laws, policies, and administrative sanctions.

Miller also critiques the plethora of interlocking problems that have resulted in America becoming the country that cages more citizens than any other on the planet. His rich, descriptive narrative allows the reader to explore the world of prison and its "afterlife" in a very moving way.

In the words of Pulitzer-Prize winning author Heather Ann Thompson, "As Miller shows so powerfully [in his book], the damage done by this system has been so insidious, and so comprehensive, that certain Americans are always, in effect, doing time."

One of the qualities that makes this book so compelling is Miller's proximity to the problem. His father and brother were incarcerated, and he was actively a part of his brother's support network throughout his incarceration and release. He witnessed firsthand what families of incarcerated people experience during that time.

He also served as a Chaplain inside Chicago's notorious Cook County Jail where he interacted with thousands of people in detention and was able to directly observe how they were treated by their jailers.

The imprint of incarceration on Miller's life allows him to see and understand things other ethnographers often miss or overlook when they study the caging of citizens. He writes not only as a brilliant scholar, but also as a credible witness.

I'm critical of authors who write about the carceral system because too often they write through the gaze of a detached observer. As an advocate for incarcerated people and stakeholder in how we are portrayed, I'm not one to give a pass to authors who gaslight readers about the facts.

Too many writers seek to capitalize off the suffering and misery of the incarcerated experience. They frequently only review statistics and data points before arriving at conclusions and rarely engage with the subjects of their research.

Part of Miller's fieldwork for his book included spending time interviewing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in jails, prisons, half-way houses, treatment programs, homeless shelters, and urban cities. He also interviewed local politicians, prison staff, reentry program staff, among others.

As someone who has been caged in Michigan prisons 32 years and intensely studied the carceral system experientially -- including reading books, scores of peer-reviewed journal articles, and research studies on the subject -- I can unequivocally state that Miller knows what he's writing about.

Anyone interested in learning about the real struggles and lived experiences of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families should read this book. It will open your eyes about things you didn't know and change your perspectives about things you thought you already knew.

###

Book information online:

https://www.littlebrown.com/.../halfway-home/9780316451512/

(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 http://fb.com/Free.Efren.)

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 http://fb.com/Free.Efren.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Unpacking the Notion of Rehabilitation in the Case of Efrén Paredes, Jr. (Part 1)


by Necalli Ollin

(This is the first in a series of posts analyzing the prosecutor's arguments in recent court hearings regarding the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr.)

Friday, January 15, 2021, oral arguments were held in the Berrien County Trial Court in the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Efrén is a 47-year-old Latino man arrested at age 15 in Berrien County, Michigan, for the 1989 homicide and robbery of a grocery store manager. He was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to life without parole. Minors serving the extreme sentence are commonly referred to as "juvenile lifers."

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. The Court also ordered the resentencing of 2,500 people impacted by the ruling nationwide. In Michigan Picture:  Keith Negley for The Washington Post            367 people had to be resentenced.

Michigan trial courts now have the option of imposing a term-of-year sentence ranging between a 25-40 year minimum or a life-without-parole sentence on juvenile offenders charged with first-degree murder. Trial courts previously could only impose a life-without-parole sentence for the charge. The U.S. Supreme Court gave trial courts the option to choose which sentence to impose.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, only juvenile offenders who are "irreparably corrupt" and forever incapable of change and rehabilitation can receive a life-without-parole sentence. The high court also added that sentencing juveniles to life without parole must become a "rare" and "uncommon" practice only appropriate in "exceptional circumstances."

Of the 200+ juvenile lifers who have been resentenced statewide 93% of them have received a term-of-year sentence. The vast majority have received sentences of time served or an average 30-year minimum sentence. None of the juvenile lifers who have been released have reoffended and they have a zero percent recidivism rate.

Nearly nine years after the U.S. Court decision, however, 150 Michigan juvenile lifers still await a review of their case for consideration of a new sentence, including Efrén.

The primary reason for the sentencing delays in these cases is that prosecutors across the state insisted on ignoring the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and pursued life-without-parole sentences against these individuals again. Doing so required counties to conduct costly mitigation hearings for each defendant.

There has been no concern for the costs of each hearing by prosecutors, however, because taxpayers are being made to pay for attorneys, expert witnesses, and related court costs in nearly each case.

THE REHABILITATION FACTOR

It is important to examine the issue of rehabilitation in Efrén's case closely because it is the singular most important factor a trial court judge must consider when determining whether a juvenile offender is a candidate to receive a life-without-parole or term-of-year sentence.

During oral arguments held in Efrén's case on January 15, 2021, retired Berrien County prosecutor Michael Sepic presented a convoluted claim about rehabilitation. Early on he stated that there was "no way to determine" if Efrén had been rehabilitated from what caused him to commit the crime he was convicted of because he asserts his constitutional right to maintain his innocence.

Sepic later stated that Efrén's accomplishments during incarceration "bode well for him." Inherent in this statement is an acknowledgement that Efrén has the capacity to learn, grow, and change.

However, blinded by his rage to punish, Sepic contradicted himself only minutes later by making the patently false statement to the judge that there is "absolutely no [evidence of] rehabilitation" during Efrén's incarceration.

In a recent published Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) ruling decided January 21, 2021, the Court stated that the trial court abused its discretion when upholding the life-without-parole sentence of a juvenile lifer after conducting his mitigation hearing.

According to the MCOA, the trial court "fail[ed] to consider whether the defendant 'was and would remain wholly incapable of rehabilitation for THE REMAINDER OF HIS LIFE[.]'" (emphasis added) (quoting People v. Garay, 320 Mich. App. 29, 49 (2017)). (People v. Bennett, 2021 Mich. App. LEXIS 472, *9).

The MCOA added, "'Irreparable corruption,' [i.e., forever having no capacity for change] is the ONLY ground [the U.S. Supreme Court] specifically identified for imposing a life-without-parole sentence [for a juvenile offender]. See Miller [v. Alabama], 567 U.S. at 479." (emphasis added) (People v. Bennett, at *10)

Sepic's claims about Efrén's capacity for change and rehabilitation collapse in light of the recent MCOA ruling which clearly defined rehabilitation when applied to juvenile lifer cases.

The MCOA stated, "'rehabilitation' involves the successful completion of vocational, education, or counseling programs designed to enable a prisoner to lead a useful life, free of crime, when released." (People v. Bennett, at *19).

When applied to Efrén he has fulfilled every facet of this definition. He has not only successfully completed "vocational, education, OR counseling programs," he has completed them all a multiplicity of times.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics 95% of offenders plead guilty to crimes in exchange for reduced charges and more lenient sentences. All plea agreements are negotiated through prosecutors' offices, including violent crimes such as homicide, sex offenses, etc.

Sepic made the brazenly dishonest argument that Efrén hasn't demonstrated evidence of change and rehabilitation, but he never made that same argument in the thousands of other cases he rushed through the criminal justice system in the interest of saving time and money during his checkered time in office.

The vast majority of defendants Sepic has negotiated plea agreements with over the years never produced evidence of rehabilitation before he negotiated reduced charges with them, but he facilitated their ability to be sentenced anyway. Most defendants were adults at the time they committed their crimes.

Plea agreements are negotiated between the time of a person's arrest and when they are sentenced when most of them are in jail. In jail there are no rehabilitative programs available and generally people are sentenced within months of their arrest.

Sepic also argued that Efrén exercising his constitutional right to maintain his innocence for nearly 32 years is a reason he has not been rehabilitated. During the court hearing he attacked Efrén for invoking his constitutional right to not admit guilt by characterizing him using degrading language.

According to the Michigan Supreme Court, "[A] court cannot base its sentence EVEN IN PART on defendant's refusal to admit guilt." (emphasis added) (People v. Hatchett, 477 Mich. 1061 (2009); People v. Jackson, 474 Mich. 996 (2006).

The Michigan Supreme Court has also stated, "It is a violation of due process to punish a person for asserting a protected statutory or constitutional right." (People v. Ryan, 451 Mich. 30, 35 (1996)).

During Efrén's January 15, 2021, court hearing Sepic asked the judge to dismiss testimony Efrén previously provided in court about encountering difficulty growing up Brown in America, and having been called epithets during his childhood because of his Mexican-American heritage.

Sepic claimed that the experiences never occurred without presenting a single witness or shred of evidence to refute Efrén's testimony. In a brief he submitted to the court on December 22, 2021, Sepic stated even if Efrén did experience "the racial stuff that was going on" it didn't "interfere with his brain development and maturity."

Rather than condemn the racist acts, Sepic chose to condemn Efrén instead. Sepic's mindset and racially offensive statement is part of the reason that he and fellow prosecutors have created a culture of disparate and unfair treatment resulting in 70% of Michigan juveniles sentenced to life without parole being children of color.

INTELLECTUAL DISHONESTY & UNFOUNDED ARGUMENTS

During the January 15, 2021 hearing Sepic wildly ignored advancements in brain science, adolescent development research, reason, and common sense. He claimed that Efrén had an 18-year-old brain when he was 15, and that he also has the same "charisma, intelligence, and personality" today he had when he was 15. Both claims were untethered to reality and had no basis in fact.

He also cited examples of normal human behavior that have occurred during Efrén's incarceration (e.g., getting married, becoming a father, using the Internet, etc.) as reasons he is incapable of rehabilitation.

Another illogical argument Sepic made as evidence that Efrén has not been rehabilitated is that he invited citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to send letters to his judge -- an elected official -- expressing support that Efrén receive a term-of-year sentence rather than life-without-parole.

Sepic made this argument despite his own personal efforts to coordinate a campaign to recruit citizens in 2008 and 2009 to write letters to the Parole Board and Governor opposing Efrén's release.

Dozens of emails sent from and to Sepic during that time were obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. In one email dated Wednesday, September 10, 2008, 2:28 PM, Sepic sent to several people he wrote:

"My intention in providing [you information about the Paredes case] ... is to have a base of information. Please advise anyone that writes a letter ... to [use] their own words so we don't get letters looking alike. ... I'd rather not have it look like we're orchestrating this."

There is also evidence that Sepic proofread and provided feedback to several letters written by citizens who he asked to write to the Parole Board. One person Sepic asked to write a letter emailed him a draft copy of her letter on Wednesday, October 29, 2008, 3:31 PM, and asked him, "Let me know if you think I should change anything [i]n it?"

Sepic responded to her question via email minutes after receiving it at 3:58 PM stating, "That is exactly what I had in mind and to the point. ... Thank you very much for doing this, I truly appreciate it." In this instance he approved a letter knowing it contained false and misleading information. Sepic's actions were tantamount to colluding to provide false information to public officials.

(The names of citizens Sepic contacted or contacted him via email regarding Efrén's case are being withheld to protect their privacy.)

These baseless and unhinged arguments were merely distractions offered up by Sepic as a disinformation campaign to avoid addressing the heart of what the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Miller v. Alabama -- that only juvenile offenders who are "irreparably corrupt" and forever incapable of change and rehabilitation can receive life-without-parole sentences.

EVIDENCE OF EFREN'S REHABILITATION ROOTED IN REALITY

During his court hearing Efrén's attorney Stuart Friedman stated, "actions speak louder than words." He went on to say that Efrén is the things he has repeatedly done for the past three decades, which includes a raft of positive accomplishments to better himself.

Today Efrén is a husband, father, and humanitarian. He is also a sought after speaker who has spoken on several university campuses, radio stations, podcasts, TV news programs, and participated on panels via phone at events across the nation speaking about criminal justice reform, improving race relations, and other issues.

An examination of Efrén's institutional history, personal life, and benevolence track his maturation as he has evolved into a compassionate, responsible, thoughtful human being. He has developed a profound appreciation for the sanctity of life and inherent dignity in others. Several witnesses testified at Efrén's October 6-7, 2020 mitigation hearing about this and a number of support letters were submitted to the court as further evidence.

Efrén has also helped enrich the lives of others inside and outside of prison. He has used the knowledge and skills he has acquired to assist both incarcerated peers and citizens in society use critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution to empower themselves to become better human beings and sound consequential thinkers.

According to Efrén, "I have learned that every person has the innate capacity to learn, grow, and change. 'Life is ever unfolding, continually renewing and redesigning the intricate pieces of our character.' (Iyanla Vanzant). No one is defined by their worst mistake or best choice in life. We are a culmination of our decisions and lived experiences. Everyone is a work in progress, no one remains frozen in time."

A prison Warden and 30-year employee of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) wrote a letter of commendation for placement in Efrén's institutional file stating in part, "[Y]ou have not only served as the chairman of the Warden's Forum for four terms ... you have also led the forum in a direction of positive change and helped to maximize communication between the administration and other prisoners."

He added, "[T]he attitude that you display, and the manner in which you carry yourself, is an excellent example to other prisoners as you demonstrate that it is possible to be positive and productive even within a correctional setting."

A retired 20-year corrections officer with the MDOC and former U.S. Marine also wrote a support letter on Efrén's behalf stating, "As a corrections professional for several years, and having interacted with numerous prisoners during my employment with the MDOC, it is my opinion that Efrén Paredes, Jr. poses no threat to society and deserves to be released. ... I believe he is an excellent candidate for release from prison."

These individuals are career professionals with decades of corrections experience who have had the opportunity to spend time closely monitoring Efrén's behavior and associations. They are far more credible than Sepic at evaluating Efrén's character and risk for being safely returned to society.

Additional testimonials about Efrén's character and conduct by current and former MDOC staff and volunteers who have closely monitored and interacted with Efrén during the past three decades of his incarceration will appear in an upcoming installation in this series.

During his incarceration Efrén has participated in numerous rehabilitative programs, participated in a campaign to help a middle-school attain its charter authorization in the Los Angeles Unified School District, become a Literary Braille Transcriber certified by the U.S. Library of Congress, and accomplished myriad other things.

And he has managed to do them all living under the enormous stress of struggling to survive daily and navigating a minefield of moral decay behind bars. Prison is a dysfunctional environment teeming with social toxins which devalue life, progression, and are designed to extinguish the human spirit.

According to a recent brief filed in court on Efrén's behalf, "During the past eleven years Efrén has benefited from receiving over 130 counseling sessions interfacing with psychologists and social workers through the Outpatient Mental Health Program to help him manage depression. Half of all citizens will experience a mental health issue in their lives, but only 13% will seek professional help. Efrén's willingness to seek help reflects his ability to recognize personal struggles and address them in a responsible way."

While participating in therapy Efrén has received certificates for completing several classes including Grief and Loss, Healthy Boundaries, Thinking Errors, Meditation, Stress Management, Character Development, and Anger Management. These classes have helped him cultivate greater empathy, insight development, and self-awareness.

In an August 4, 1989 psychological evaluation report prepared by Dr. Stephen C. Cook after evaluating Efrén, the psychiatrist stated, "[T]his offense is not part of a repetitive pattern of offenses which would lead to the determination that [Efrén] may be beyond rehabilitation under existing juvenile programs and statutory procedures[.]" In other words, the psychiatrist determined Efrén was not incapable of change or rehabilitation.

If Efrén were truly a violent, irredeemable person he would have exhibited a pattern of violent life-course persistent behavior while in prison. Not only does this pattern not exist in Efrén's incarceration history, his life behind bars has been the complete inversion of this. Though stabbings, robberies, and other assaultive and predatory behavior (including murder) are a recurring part of ordinary prison life, they have been glaringly absent in Efrén's behavior.

Contrary to popular belief prisons do not stop or prevent violence. They are an apparatus that fosters a culture of violence and serve as incubators to proliferate it. The only thing that prevents prisoners from exhibiting violent behavior is their conscious choice to repeatedly reject the impulse of violence and criminal thinking in all its manifestations.

Though some incarcerated people will arrive at this thinking aided by their participation in available prison rehabilitative programming, incarcerated people serving life without parole sentences can only rely on themselves when pursuing the enterprise of learning because of the paucity of programming opportunities available to them.

It would be impossible for Efrén to have read countless educational books, completed numerous rehabilitative classes, and done many other positive things with his life if he did not possess the capacity to learn, grow, and change. The fact that he has participated in every rehabilitative program available to him at every prison he has been housed alone is evidence of rehabilitation.

Efrén has perpetually sought to evolve because he made the conscious choice to do so on his own, not because he was forced to. He was originally sentenced to die in prison and had no incentive to become a better person.

During his incarceration Efrén has openly condemned crime and violence, and dedicated considerable time to fostering nonviolence through his numerous writings, interviews, and speeches at various events. He has also done so through facilitating classes in prison about conflict resolution, impulse control, and insight development.

In a letter addressed to Sepic dated July 10, 2020, Efrén wrote:

"If released one day, I will offer decades of skills and experience I have developed helping transform lives inside and outside of prison to your office, law enforcement, and to the citizens of the county to help prevent crime and promote improved race relations."

He also stated:

"My heart breaks for each person who has been a victim or survivor of crime and I pray for their healing. Not a day goes by that I don't think about the profound anguish, sorrow, and incalculable loss the Tetzlaff family has endured. No one deserves to have their life cut short or their world upended because of the pernicious actions of another human being."

At his October 7, 2020 court hearing Efrén spoke directly to the victim's family in the courtroom from the witness stand. He emotionally expressed being deeply sorry for their tragic loss and was in the process of sharing additional thoughts reflecting compassion and empathy before being interrupted by Sepic objecting to this moment of humanity in the courtroom.

Further evidence of Efrén's growth and maturity also appeared in his July 10, 2020 letter to Sepic when he wrote:

"As a 47-year-old husband and parent, someone who has had family members and friends victimized by violence, met and spoken to non-family crime victims and survivors, and a person who has engaged in decades of introspective work, I empathize with the visceral pain and suffering of people feel who have been impacted by violence."

* * *

"During my incarceration I have participated in numerous programs afforded to me and come to learn about the devastating impact that crime has on victims, first responders, and the community at large. I have also created programs that have helped people become problem solvers, sound consequential thinkers, and agents of healing."

Any parent or person who has worked with children knows that kids change. It is a natural part of life. We were all teenagers ourselves once and none of us are the same person we were as adolescents. Even as adults we perpetually change.

According to behavioral experts no evidence exists that personality ever ceases to change during a person's lifetime. (Avshalom Caspi & Brent W. Roberts, "Personality Development Across the Life Course," 12 Psychol. Inquiry 49, 51 (2001)).

Evidence also exists that personality traits change gradually and systematically throughout the life span, sometimes more after age 30 than before. (Sanjay Srivastava et al., "Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood," 84 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 1041, 1051 (2003)).

The evidence that Efrén is not irreparably corrupt, permanently incorrigible, or forever incapable of change or rehabilitation is abundantly clear. An objective data-driven, evidence-based objective review of Efrén's life during the past 32 years makes it clear he is not deserving of a life without-parole-sentence.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, juvenile offenders like Efrén who have decades of documented and established evidence of capacity for change and rehabilitation must receive a term-of-year sentence. A life-without-parole sentence in that instance would be unconstitutional and subject to being reversed and vacated by an appellate court.

A ruling by the Berrien County Trial Court about whether Efrén will receive a term-of-year or life-without-parole sentence is expected in March.

The next installment of this series will feature a collection of citations from U.S. Supreme Court, Michigan Supreme Court, and other relevant court opinions stating which juvenile offenders are not candidates to receive life-without-parole sentences in their own words.

Source:  http://facebook.com/Free.Efren