After thunderstorms barreled through the state Sunday morning, clouds dispersed later that day to create a sunny backdrop for the widely anticipated "Juvenile Lifer Rally for Justice." Citizens across the country descended on Erma Henderson Memorial Park in Detroit, Michigan on June 18, 2017 from 2 pm to 5 pm to shine a powerful spotlight on issues adversely affecting juvenile lifers.
Event organizers Elena Herrada and Efren Paredes, Jr. began planning for two months prior to the date of the event. Plans included doing outreach on radio shows, speaking to college students, inviting event speakers, creating and distributing posters, developing an online platform to contact state legislators to pass Michigan prison reform, and promoting the event on social media and blogs.
Elena Herrada is a Detroit Superstation AM 910 radio show host and adjunct professor at Marygrove College and Wayne County Community College. Efren Paredes, Jr. is an advocate for social change, youth mentor, blogger, and one of Michigan's 363 juvenile lifers.
The event was endorsed by an impressive list of groups and organizations from around the country. Among them are Amnesty International, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Human Rights Advocates, The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), Voice of Detroit Newspaper, My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP), Xica Nation, ACLU (Detroit), Humanity for Prisoners, and ICAN (Incarcerated Childrens' Advocacy Network).
Other supporters included The Injustice Must End (TIME), South Eastern Michigan Indians, Inc. (SEMII), Black Lives Matter, and LaSED (Latin American Social and Economic Development), Peace Education Center of Greater Lansing, My Brother's Keeper Prison Outreach Program (MBK-POP), National Lifers of America, Inc. (Chapter 1030), Sacred Heart Catholic Church (Detroit), St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Keep the Vote No Takeover, Moratorium Now, Detroit School Board in Exile, Operation Get Down, and others.
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, recently wrote a message to organizers about the event stating, "Thank you so much for your organizing and activism on this issue. It's great to see people committing to highlighting this shameful practice. We would be very pleased to be listed as an endorser of your convening. I hope it goes well. All the best."
Stevenson is the author of the New York Times Bestseller "Just Mercy" and the attorney who successfully argued the landmark Miller v. Alabama case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 which lead to the end of mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders nationwide.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences were unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of the nation's 2,500 juvenile lifers. Of that number 363 prisoners are from Michigan.
"Juvenile lifers" are prisoners sentenced to mandatory LWOP when they were juveniles. Michigan shamefully ranks second in the nation as the state with the highest population of juvenile lifers.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a United Nations treaty, requires that imprisonment be used only as a "measure of last resort" for juvenile offenders, and "for the shortest appropriate time."
In 2016 the high court made their 2012 ruling retroactive. They also held that when resentencing prisoners reimposing LWOP sentences again must become "rare," "uncommon," and reserved only for those who are "incapable of change."
Since the latter ruling 15 months ago only a small fraction of Michigan's juvenile lifers have been resentenced. The remaining prisoners continue serving unconstitutional sentences. Prosecutors have stalled the process and some have not scheduled any cases for resentencing in their counties.
Prosecutors from Berrien, Gennesse, Macomb, Oakland, and Saginaw counties are shamefully seeking LWOP sentences for almost all the 100 juvenile lifer cases in those counties being resentenced. Wayne County is seeking LWOP sentences for 61 of the 158 cases in its jurisdiction. They are doing this despite the U.S. Supreme Court rulings referenced above.
In recent years 19 states have banned LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders and six states have no juveniles serving the deplorable sentence. This means that half the country has abandoned the practice while many Michigan prosecutors have maliciously obstructed justice in juvenile lifer cases for the past five years. During this time six juvenile lifers have died awaiting the justice they were never fortunate enough to receive.
Among the issues the event called attention to are:
- Uphold the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility statement as ministers of justice;
- For them to have more than a nominal commitment to rehabilitation;
- To stop pursuing LWOP sentences that are at odds with U.S. Supreme Court rulings; and
- To stop delaying juvenile lifer resentencing hearings across the state.
They called on judges to:
- Impose the minimum term-of-year sentence allowed pursuant to MCL 769.25 for all juvenile lifers being resentenced and stop imposing LWOP sentences on juvenile offenders.
They also called on lawmakers to:
- Pass legislation abolishing LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders; to
- Give jurisdiction to the Parole Board to begin reviewing all juvenile lifer cases for meaningful parole consideration annually after serving 15 years; and to
- Allow juvenile offenders who are resentenced to receive good time and disciplinary credits, which is currently not allowed.
A 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform and online petition was also unveiled that citizens across the state can digitally sign. The petition will deliver emails to state legislators calling on them to reform the state's prison system. Some of the proposed reforms include abolishing LWOP sentences for juveniles, restoring good time eligibility for all prisoners, reducing the predatory pricing of phone calls, providing relief to prisoners serving life or long indeterminate sentences, etc.
Among the rich array of people who spoke at the event were Eric Alexander from the Washington, DC-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth; Dr. Austin Jackson, Director, MSU My Brother's Keeper Program; Ken Grunow, President, Amnesty International (Detroit); Rodd Monts, Legislative Department Field Director, ACLU of Michigan; Dr. John Masterson, Board Member, Peace Education Center of Greater Lansing; and Mario Bueno, Co-Director, LUCK, Inc.
Also speaking that afternoon were Hon. Peter Deegan, retired judge, prosecutor, and past President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan; Velia Koppenhoefer, member of The Injustice Must End (TIME); Elyse Blennerhassett, Columbia University graduate student, New York-based podcast producer, and photographer; former prisoners who were convicted as juveniles who were paroled and are now productive citizens, and others.
Speakers shared personal stories and offered examples of the capacity for change in young people. They emphasized the need to not impose extreme sentences on youth offenders and for judges to be mindful of the concept of redemption.
Retired judge, prosecutor, and past President of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, Peter Deegan, urged prosecutors to not make decisions in juvenile lifer cases that are at odds with U.S. Supreme Court rulings. He said it makes sense that if a person who received an unconstitutional sentence as a teen can demonstrate they've been rehabilitated, they should have a chance at parole one day.
Velia Koppenhoefer, member of The Injustice Must End (TIME), stated, "We are not asking prosecutors or judges to do any more than the nation's high court has ordered in this matter."
Koppenhoefer added, "We are simply asking them to follow the law. Providing term-of-year sentences to juvenile lifers and the opportunity for meaningful parole consideration is a sensible and humane solution that can bring resolution to the problem."
Speakers expressed frustration with the state spending $34,000 to incarcerate each prisoner yearly yet only investing $7,000 annually per pupil, and the fact that the state pays more for incarceration than it does for higher education.
Paredes, who called the event from prison and had his voice amplified over the event sound system stated, "We betray humanity when we condemn people to die in prison because of mistakes they made when they were children."
Members of the print, television, and radio media provided coverage of the event. It was also recorded by a documentary film producer and podcast producer to be featured as part of a future production.
Nearly 200 people attended the rally throughout the afternoon and enjoyed the uplifting atmosphere. One attendee from Lansing, Michigan described the experience as "powerful and moving." Another person who traveled from out of state characterized the energy at the event as "inspiring" and described feeling "a sense of hope and renewal."
A currently incarcerated juvenile lifer, Ronnie Waters who has served 37 years in prison, expressed gratitude for the event. He stated, "Thank you from the heart for not forgetting about the difficult fight that juvenile lifers are engaged in across the state. Knowing you are there to support us lifts our spirits during this long, difficult wait. May God be with all of you freedom fighters who never stop beating the drum for justice. We love you all."
Event organizers vowed to keep organizing to bring attention to the issues surrounding juvenile lifer resentencing hearings and prison reform affecting all prisoners. They also expressed plans to mobilize thousands of prisoner families, friends, and formerly incarcerated people to become active in the election process and stand behind public office candidates that support prison reform. Among the offices they will seek to impact include the Governor, Attorney General, lawmakers, mayors, judges, prosecutors, city clerks, and others.
According to Paredes, "Children for generations will be impacted by our decision to act or our unwillingness to do so. We can not sit silently in the periphery as spectators and allow the lives and futures of our young people to be carelessly thrown away."
He countered false claims and hyperbole made by prosecutors about the manufactured danger juvenile lifers allegedly pose to public safety by pointing to the fact that prisoners serving life sentences who are paroled statistically have less than a 2% chance of reoffending. They have ranked the lowest of all offense categories for over 100 years and consistently demonstrated they can be safely returned to society with minimal risks or danger to the public.
The state's addiction to incarceration as a solution to the crime problem is a failed solution that must be replaced with sensible alternatives that work. If not, mass incarceration will continue to be a vortex that suffocates everything in its path.
A link to the "Support Michigan Prison Reform" petition is available at www.TinyURL.com/MIPR2017
The following is the 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform that is part of the "Support Michigan Prison Reform" online petition:
1. Abolish life without parole (LWOP) sentences for all juvenile offenders, revise MCL 769.25 to allow juvenile lifers to receive meaningful parole eligibility annually after serving 15 years, and allow them to receive good time and disciplinary credits if they receive a term-of-years when resentenced.
2. Restore good time eligibility so prisoners can earn early release for completion of rehabilitative programming and demonstration of positive behavior.
3. End Michigan's failed truth in sentencing policy which is largely responsible for maintaining a large prison population despite a widely recognized consistent statistical drop in crime for several years.
4. End mandatory minimum sentences and give discretion to judges to impose sentences based on all the facts of an individual case since no two cases are the same.
5. Institute presumptive parole for prisoners who complete all parole program requirements and screen high probability of parole so prisoners are not arbitrarily denied paroles they have fairly earned.
6. Stop sending women to prison who have been the victims of violence for defending themselves against their abusers.
7. Increase rehabilitative programming opportunities for all prisoner demographics, including those serving long sentences since 95% of all prisoners will become returning citizens one day.
8. Allow the Parole Board to obtain jurisdiction over prisoners serving long indeterminate sentences and begin annually reviewing them for parole consideration after they have served 20 years.
9. Allow prisoners serving parolable life sentences to become eligible for parole review/release annually after serving 20 years; and allow prisoners serving non-parolable life sentences who were convicted over the age of 18 to become eligible for parole review/release annually after serving 25 years.
10. Reduce the predatory pricing of prisoner phone calls from $.20 per minute to $.10 per minute to help prisoners maintain family and community ties and foster rehabilitation.