Sunday, April 26, 2009

University of Southern Califonia (USC) Holds Forum on Life Sentences for Youth

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 6:00 PM the University of Southern California (USC) will host a forum focused on the use of life sentences without the possibility of parole on people under the age of 18-years-old.

Panelists include Professor Heidi Rummel of the USC School of Law; Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch, a researcher and advocate with Human Rights Watch will discuss SB399 and California specific issues regarding juvenile justice; and Efrén Paredes, Jr. who is serving sentences of life without parole in Michigan (present by phone); and students from USC Gould School of Law's Post Conviction Justice Project who are currently working on cases in which juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole.

Panelists will discuss several questions, including: Should juveniles be sentenced to life in prison? Are our youth incorrigible? Why is the U.S. the only nation in the world to not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

There is a statewide campaign to end juvenile life without parole in California, where more than 250 youth have been sentenced to die in prison. A bill has just been introduced in the California state legislature that would provide review and possible re-sentencing of all life without parole cases cases in which the offender was under the age of 18 when the crime occurred. Students at USC could play an important role in helping to get SB 399, the Fair Sentences for Youth Act, passed.

President Barack Obama who has openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that the United States has not, like the country of Somalia, yet ratified the Convention On the Rights of the Child which prohibits the imposition of life without parole sentences on juveniles. The United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world who have not ratified the treaty.

In October 2008, President Obama responded to this at the Walden University Presidential Youth Debate by saying, "It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land." He continued, "I will review this and other treaties and ensure that the United States resum es its global leadership in human rights."

Location: USC Campus WPH102 Sponsored by M.E.Ch.A. de USC .


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Local Leaders Rally to Support Efren Paredes, Jr.

Local Leaders Rally to Support Efren Paredes, Jr.

by Juliana Birnbaum Fox

The Bay Area has become an active center of support for Michigan inmate Efren Paredes, Jr., convicted in 1989 and sentenced to life at the age of 15 for a murder he still maintains he did not commit. There was no physical evidence linking Efren to the crime, nor any eyewitnesses, and his family maintains that he was home with them when the murder occurred.

Over the past decades, Paredes, now 35, has become a symbol for prison system reform in cases involving juveniles. His parole appeal is currently being considered by a state commission.

“Paredes’ sentence as a juvenile to life in prison without parole (JLWOP) violates human rights legal standards,” reads a letter from the Berkeley City Council to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. The letter mentions the questionable circumstances that led to Paredes’ conviction, and his leadership and positive contribution to society despite his 20 years of incarceration. “For this country to be the lone holdout on the issue of JLWOP weakens our moral and legal standing in the international community,” the letter continues, urging a ban on the practice. The city council adopted a resolution condemning Paredes’ sentence as a human rights violation in February of this year.

Despite being an honor student and having no prior convictions, the judge in Paredes’ case exercised his option to sentence him as an adult because of his apparent lack of remorse for the crime, which involved an armed robbery and murder at a store where Paredes worked. All of the other defendants in the case pleaded guilty in exchange for plea bargains, and have since been released from prison.

Local activist Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, director of the Institute for Multi-Racial Justice, wrote in her support letter for Paredes, points out the larger systemic issue of injustice imposed upon the Latino community in the court system.

“Mr. Paredes’ trial attorney had advised him to show no emotion during his trial, which had a very negative effect on the sentencing phase,” Martinez writes. “Until recently the attorney always denied giving this advice. However, he has now admitted it, a fact that is included in Mr. Paredes’ current appeal.”

Michigan has sentenced more juveniles to life in prison without parole than any other state except Pennsylvania, according to a 2007 UCSF study, "Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison." Currently local Paredes supporters are also calling attention to the fact that California has ­277 such individuals are serving these sentences in the state. The United States is the only nation that imprisons juveniles for life.

“For many children, [life without parole] is an effective death sentence carried out by the state slowly over a long period of time,” said Michelle Leighton, chief author of the study. Life terms also fall disproportionately on youths of color, with blacks 20 times more likely to receive such a sentence in California.

The UCSF report asserts that trying children and teenagers in adult courts does not take into account several important factors: the bigger potential for rehabilitation and reintegration into society; their ineptness at navigating the criminal justice system, and their lessened culpability as compared with adult offenders.

“It’s a local issue to us,” said Wendy Kenin of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. “This gives us an opportunity to weigh in­to take a stand on the issue of juvenile sentences of life without parole.”

The board will be making a recommendation to the Governor’s Office about Paredes’s release in the coming weeks. The Governor will render the final decision. Generally these decisions are made within a few months, but there is no official timetable.


This article appeared on the front page of El Reportero, Vol. 19, No. 6. The original article included Israel as a nation that imprisons juveniles to life in prison. That statement has been removed from this re-post becuase it is inaccurate. The US is the only country in the world imposing the sentence. Click here to view the PDF version of this file as it originally appeared in print.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jack Ebling Interviews Mario Rocha About His Wrongful Conviction, His Documentary "Mario's Story," and Efrén Paredes, Jr.

This afternoon, Monday, April 20, 2009, Jack Ebling, AM 1320 WILS Lansing radio show host, interviewed Mario Rocha, a friend of Efrén's and member of The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee to Free Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Jack and Mario discussed his wrongful conviction which robbed him of 10 years of his freedom, his documentary "Mario's Story" that has been airing on Mondays on Showtime for the past month, what he is doing with his life today, and about how he became involved in the campaign to free Efrén.

Click the play button on the left side of the flash player below to listen to Jack's exclusive interview with Mario Rocha.

You can also read a recent post Efrén wrote about Maria which you can view by clicking on the following link:

Mario is expected to visit Michigan in the coming weeks to screen his documentary, discuss his case, wrongful convictions, and the importance for the citizens of the State of Michigan to support Efrén's release.

A special thanks to our friend Jack Ebling for his continued support, and for helping us keep the injustice surrounding Efrén's wrongful incarceration in the public eye.

Biographical Information

Jack Ebling, host of "Ebling and You" and co-host of "Jack and Tom" on WILS, is a broadcaster and writer who has covered high school, college, and pro sports for nearly 30 years. He has been named Michigan Sportswriter of the Year three times and was inducted into the Greater Lansing Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Jack spent more than 24 years at the Lansing State Journal as a beat writer and columnist before moving to talk radio, television, and freelance writing. He has also been a contributor to Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, Basketball Times, and Street & Smith’s College Football and College Basketball.

While Jack's background has been largely sports, on Ebling and You, Jack tackles an array of topics and talks with daily with political, business, entertainment and sports newsmakers in Lansing, in Michigan and around the nation.

Monday, April 13, 2009

As bill to ban life imprisonment for children languishes, inequities of defense persist

Children facing prospect of life sentence often have no choice but rely on state's overworked and under-resourced public defenders.

by Earth Jane Melzer
The Michigan Messenger
April, 13, 2009

As legislation to end juvenile-life-without-parole sentences in Michigan remains stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, some court watchers are warning that the controversial sentence may not be in tune with recent public opinion and is not applied fairly by the justice system.

Currently, nearly 350 people in the state are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were age 17 or younger. Seventy percent of them are African American, according to the state’s Department of Corrections.

Michigan, which currently spends approximately 20 percent of it’s general budget on corrections, has the third-highest number of inmates serving juvenile-life-without-parole sentences, according to a 2005 study by the Wayne State University School of Social Work.

Wayne State’s study surveyed public sentiment on juvenile crime and punishment and found that a majority did not support juvenile-life-without-parole sentences.

“Michigan residents are unequivocal in their belief that youth should be held accountable for their violent crimes,” the study’s authors wrote, “but that it should be in a manner that recognizes the physiologic, psychological and emotional capabilities of the youths, understanding that these capabilities differ from that of adults. These findings seem to support alternative sentencing arrangements and changes to Michigan’s current policies and legislation.”

When asked what would be an appropriate sentence for a juvenile convicted of homicide, the largest portion of respondents, 39 percent, said they preferred confinement in a juvenile facility then transfer to an adult facility for a life sentence with possibility of parole. Only 5 percent said life in adult prison without parole was the appropriate sentence; 78 percent of those surveyed said that 14-16 year-olds should not be sentenced to adult prison.

Patricia Caruso, director of the state Department of Corrections, supports the legislation to end juvenile-life-without-parole sentencing and told the Capitol News Service last month that juveniles should never come into the adult prison system.

“When you put a 14-year-old in an adult system, you’ve given up.” she said. “Adult prisons are not designed for juveniles.”

The legislation, sponsored by State Sen. Liz Brater, an Ann Arbor Democrat, would ban juvenile-life-without-parole sentences and allow those already serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles to apply for parole after a portion of their sentence is served. The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in February, where it has been stuck ever since.

Young Defendants Often Lack Adequate Defense

When juveniles are facing charges that carry a life sentence, they are especially dependent on legal counsel in a state that has one of the most under-funded public defender systems in the country. A recent report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association done in cooperation with the State Bar of Michigan found that the lack of state funding, standards and oversight leads to inadequate public defense locally where counties often lack the resources to provide adequate support for those who can’t afford an attorney.

Because young people are especially dependent on counsel to represent their interests, the failure of the state to provide adequate resources for public defense hits youth especially hard. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, 78 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole relied on appointed counsel.

Coalition for Justice, an alliance of legal and human rights groups concerned about inequities in the state justice system, together with the ACLU of Michigan is suing the state for failing to ensure equal access to representation in Michigan. The group point out that in Berrien County, for example, the prosecution receives four times as much funding as the defense.

Scott Elliot of Benton Harbor is a member of the Coalition for Justice’s public defense task force and is also the chair of groups racial relations council of Southwest Michigan.

Elliot has closely followed the case of Efren Paredes, Jr., a 15-year old Latino honor student who in 1989 became Michigan’s first juvenile to receive the life-without-parole sentence after being convicted of murder and robbery. Paredes, who has now served 20 years in prison, maintains that he is innocent.

During his years of incarceration he has become a widely known advocate for sentencing reform and he works translating books for the blind.

Elliot said stereotypes and cultural bias were an important factor in Paredes conviction.

A notebook with lyrics from rap group N.W.A.’s double platinum selling “Straight Outta Compton” album was found in Paredes’ locker at school.

Despite the fact that Paredes was a good student and had no criminal record, the prosecutor, who assumed that the lyrics were written by Paredes himself, Elliot said, introduced them as a “window into his mind” and tried to characterize him as a dangerous gang member.

Twenty years later, the lyrics remain a key element of the case against Paredes, Elliot said. At a December 2008 parole board hearing for Paredes commutation request, Berrien County Prosecutor Arthur J. Cotter again read the lyrics to the parole board as a central element of his testimony about Paredes.

The Berrien County prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on use of the lyrics and the county’s sentencing statistics.

Uneven Treatment, County by County

According to an American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan report, “Second Chances: Juveniles Serving Life Without Parole in Michigan,” the rate of juvenile-life-without-parole sentences varies widely among Michigan counties. Between 1990 and 2000, the counties with the highest rate of this sentence were Saginaw, Calhoun and Berrien counties.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Saginaw and Berrien rank among the top 25 most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.

Elliot, who has studied trends in punishment in Berrien County over three decades, said that social exclusion is a key factor in why some counties are more likely to send juvenile offenders to adult prison for life.

“It’s kind of easy to say that it was racial. I think in this community everybody’s father and uncle either belongs to Rotary or the Lion’s club or Kiwanis or their brother-in-law was a police officer,” Elliot said.

“If you are outside that large circle which is 99 percent white then you are vulnerable whether you are Latino of some other minority or black or even like me don’t go to church and don’t belong to those clubs. Anybody who is not under that umbrella is vulnerable.”

Michael Thomas, prosecuting attorney for Saginaw County, said that he was unaware that the U.S. Census Bureau lists the Saginaw as among the nation’s most segregated areas. “Segregation,” he said, “is a word I haven’t heard in around 15 years.”

Thomas said that he does not believe that racism or inability to pay for lawyers are direct factors in Saginaw’s rank as the county with the highest rate of juvenile-life-without-parole sentences in the state.

“There has been a loss of public safety in Michigan,” he said. “We now have the highest violent crime rate in the Midwest with Saginaw and Detroit tied for most violent crime,” in this climate, there are more murders committed by people of all ages.

“Children who are raised in homes where they don’t see violence and don’t have to worry where their next meal is coming from are less likely to commit violent crimes,” Thomas said.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Another Commutation," Opinion, Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Free Press
April 8, 2009

We are grateful for Jeff Gerritt's column on parolee Mike Chegwidden ("A forsaken dream leaves Michigan parolee on ice," March 26). Gerritt allowed Chegwidden space to acknowledge the "one poor choice" he made when he was 16 years old. It is clear, however, that the sentence Chegwidden was given was indeed "ridiculously harsh" and justice was better served in the commutation he received from Gov. Jennifer Granholm last year.

Gerritt also alluded to the many more cases that need to be looked at. We would like to draw readers' attention to one case that Gerritt reported on last year. We refer to the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. ("Justice makes case for commutations," Dec. 11).

From sources we consider credible, we believe that Paredes was in all likelihood not guilty. From our background in human rights issues, we know that he should not have been sentenced as a juvenile to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. From his stellar educational, employment and personal good conduct record in jail, we are confident he will have an excellent chance of leading a good, productive life if he is released.

Paredes' case was reviewed by the Michigan Board of Pardons and Paroles several months ago. We hope that the board will make the wise and just recommendation to commute his sentence in as timely a manner as possible.

Ken and Geraldine Grunow
Coordinators, Detroit Chapter
Amnesty International U.S.A.

Free Efrén Paredes, Jr. Poster and T-Shirt Slide Show

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