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.


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