Tuesday, November 24, 2009

This is why CO DA's Should not be Allowed to Direct File Kids in the Adult System

From Grand Junction: A 17-year-old, Cheyenne, who received 16-years for… well, you’ll see.

Powerful and tragic story.


Above are the three segments that were aired on NBC, Chnl 11 (local).

Below is the raw footage from our visit to the prison.


Nobody Is Beyond Redemption

Published on Thursday, November 19, 2009 by CommonDreams.org

by Deena Guzder

At the age of 13, Ishmael and his friends began sniffing "brown-brown"-a mix of cocaine and gunpowder-and wielding AK-47s. By the age of 16, Ishmael had killed "too many people to count" by his own admission. "All I knew was how to fight and loot," recalled Ishmael.

If Ishmael had committed such atrocities in the United States, he would be sitting in a dank prison serving a life sentence without any possibility of parole. Or, if the young African man had committed his crimes in a place like Texas and his victims were white, he would probably be on death row waiting for a date with the electric chair. However, Ishmael's violent past occurred in Sierre Leone. The young man is none other than 29-year-old Ishmael Beah, the former child soldier and acclaimed author of A Long Way Gone.

Beah's story is one of the most powerful testimonials to the fact that nobody-especially not a child-is beyond redemption. Eventually released by the Sierra Leone government army, Beah was sent to a UNICEF rehabilitation center and slowly regained his humanity. Beah attended the United Nations International School in New York City and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004. At the age of 26, he worked for Human Rights Watch on children's rights issues. Since publishing his memoir, Beah has spoken before the UN, the Council on Foreign Relations, and myriad NGOs on the contagious effect of violence on children. Beah recently denounced the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. "I've been very troubled by this issue," he said. "We're only willing to forgive people if they hurt people who are far way from us. But if they hurt one of us-an American-then we cannot forgive." He continued, "Yet, we cannot have this double standard. A child here is the same as a child anywhere."

Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, Jo Becker, agrees with Beah and says there are startling contradictions in the way the United States treats young offenders. "Millions of dollars are poured into rehabilitation programs abroad [for child soldiers] yet . . . our juvenile justice system is one of the most punitive in the world."

The U.S. has the dubious distinction of standing alone in condemning thousands of juveniles to life without parole. There are currently over 2,500 prisoners serving such sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers. Half of the prisoners serving juvenile life without parole are first-time offenders; over 100 prisoners received the sentence for non-homicide crimes; and, at least 74 cases involve defendants who were 14 years old or younger when they committed their crimes. With no hope of ever leaving prison, the term "life without parole" is really a euphemism for a living death sentence.

Beah now helps rehabilitate children formerly involved in armed conflict. "Children who have gone through violence can be the ones who prevent more violence because they know the impact of violence on the individual and community as well as the circumstances that lead to violence," said Beah.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Roper v. Simmons that-under the "evolving standards of decency" test-executing a person who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime was cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that juveniles have an "underdeveloped sense of responsibility" that leads to "impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions," as well as being "more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure."
Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch note that indefinitely detaining children is just as cruel and unusual as executing them. The torture of capital punishment begins when conscious human beings are condemned to death; similarly, the torture of life without parole begins when a young person suddenly realizes that no dream beyond the prison walls is worth nurturing. These NGOs have also provided reliable statistics about recidivism, deterrence, racial disparity, and poorly trained public defenders that belie both the alleged benefits and assumed fairness of not only capital punishment but also life without parole.

The Supreme Court is finally reconsidering whether it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to lifetime prison terms without the possibility of parole. Beah has joined actor Charles Dutton, former U.S. Senator (R-Wyoming) Alan K. Simpson, and others in filing an amicus brief on behalf of juveniles condemned to a slow death in prison. "There are people in this country who are serving life sentences for crimes that are much less terrible than what I did," said Beah who acknowledges that the nexus between poverty, childhood abuse and neglect, social and emotional dysfunction, alcohol and drug abuse, and crime is often very tight in the lives of many juvenile offenders. "If somebody gives a person an opportunity, they no longer become a threat to society."

Deena Guzder has reported on human rights issues from Bangkok, Tehran, Mumbai, and beyond. She is the author of a forthcoming book on progressive religious radicals for social justice, currently scheduled for release by Chicago Review Press in 2010.

Please visit her website: www.DeenaGuzder.com

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Supreme Court Effort

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., made a strong — and repeated — effort on Monday to recruit a majority of the Supreme Court in favor of giving juveniles more chance to use their age to challenge life-without-parole prison terms, as an alternative to a flat constitutional bar against ever imposing that sentence. With a number of Justices wondering where to draw an age line if the categorical approach were used, the Chief Justice’s initiative seemed to have a good chance of gaining adherents as the Court heard Graham v. Florida (08-7412) and Sullivan v. Florida (08-7621).
Lawyers for the two youths, who committed non-homicide crimes at age 16 and 13, sought to persuade the Court that the only way to deal constitutionally with no-release sentences for minor offenders was to declare all such sentences forbidden. While there was much sympathy evident among some — not all — of the Justices for treating juveniles differently, it did not appear that there was a clearcut majority for taking away altogether the life-without-parole option even in cases where the victim of a youth’s crime did not die.

The Chief Justice’s alternative would apparently be a declaration that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment required judges to take the offender’s youth into account in setting any sentence for a term of years, then judge whether that sentence was “proportional” both for an offender of that age and for the particular crime. The question on how attractive that option might be — say, to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — was whether that would be a meaningful inquiry that would in reality give youths’ some chance of avoiding having the state give up on them entirely.

On another issue at stake, in the Sullivan case, whether the Court had authority even to hear that case on the constitutional question, the strongest hint was that the Court might find that Florida law had barred that appeal. If so, that would not mean, however, that Joe Sullivan, the youth in that case, would not benefit from a ruling in the case of Terrance Graham providing some assurance that youth could be a decisive factor in long-term sentences for minors.

After the Chief Justice and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Antonin Scalia had opened the questioning by commenting on the difficulty of drawing a specific constitutional line, Roberts then moved in with the suggestion that the Court not rule categorically — for either side — but rather go for a proportionality analysis.
The Chief Justice, noting that the Court in the Roper v. Simmons in 2005 decision had said that “death was different” but also that being a juvenile also was different, asked: “Wouldn’t it make sense to incorporate the consideration of juvenile status into the proportionality review? So that if you do have a case where it’s the 17-year-old who is one week shy of his eighteenth birthday and it the most grievous criime you can imagine, you can determine that in that case life without parole may not be disproportionate.”

Terrance Graham’s lawyer, Bryan S. Gowdy of Jacksonville, said that scientific studies accepted by the Court in Roper indicated that one cannot make a determination, before age 18, whether a juvenile will or not reform as he grows up. The comment only produced more quibbling from the conservative Justices on how an arbitrary line could be justified.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor soon joined in to question what makes anyone more capable of reading the future development of a juvenile simply because he had passed his 18th birthday. Gowdy said that the Court “had to draw the line somewhere,” and, in Roper, he said, the Court chose 18. Justice Scalia quickly retorted: “Only if we accept a categorical approach.” Otherwise, he said, “we would not have to draw a line.”

The state of Florida’s lawyer, Solicitor General Scott D. Makar from Tallahassee opened his argument by contending that a categorical bar on life-without-parole for minors would run counter to trends in treating juveniles over past couple of decades, frustrating states in their attempts to deal with rising juvenile crime while still remaining sensitive to the needs of youthful offenders. Soon, he, too, encountered the Chief Justice’s hostility to a categorical rule on the state’s side, that life-without-parole was always allowed.

After Makar had said that Florida acknowledged that youthful age “does matter,” Justice Sotomayor asked for help in drawing the line where life-without-parole would be permissible. Would it be unconstitutional if the youth were only 10? she asked. If that is too early, she said, why would 14 or 15 not be too early? Makar would only concede that “I think it [age] does matter.” Sotomayor was not satisfied, next asking about a no-release sentence for a five-year-old.

Chief Justice Roberts interrupted to test on what legal basis Makar was suggesting that age does matter, and then suggested himself that it would be the Eighth Amendment. And, once again, he suggested that, under that Amendment, one could “just say age has to be considered.”

Makar’s toughest questioner was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who sharply criticized Florida’s lack of any “proportionality” review under its own state laws, and drew unfavorable comparisons between state restrictions on juveniles on drinking, driving and marrying even while allowing sentencing as if they were adults. The Sullivan case, argued section, brought some of the same exchanges, but was dominated by questions of whether the Court had jurisdiction to hear the case. Justice Ginsburg commented very early to Joe Sullivan’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, that “before you get to the particulars of this case, there is a serious question” about whether Florida law barred the challenge to the no-release sentence.

Several Justices said that, if the Court were to decide that the Roper decision was a death penalty-only case and thus did not apply to life sentences, then Florida’s “procedural bar” did, in fact, prevent Sullivan from making his challenge in 2007 to a sentence he received in 1989. “You’re out of court” if Roper does not apply, Justice Scalia said.

When Stevenson did get a chance to discuss the merits, he sought to persuade the Court that, whatever line it might draw against life-without-parole for minors, it definitely should rule it out for 13-year-olds. Once again, though, he encountered the Chief Justice’s apparent agenda. “If we require consideration of age under the Eighth Amendment,” Roberts commented, “we avoid all these line-drawing problems.”
Makar, making a return appearance in the Sullivan case, had to spend much of his time trying to clear up confusion about how often the life-without-parole sentence is given to juvenile offenders, in Florida and elsewhere. With Justice Stephen G. Breyer leading the questioning of the state’s lawyer, the difficulties of drawing age lines that would properly reflect the capacity for “moral responsibility” became more evident.

Breyer did draw from Makar the minimal concession that, if the Court were to rule in the Graham case that Roper did apply to no-release sentences, and that were made retroactive, then Sullivan would be allowed — under Florida law — to file a new challenge to his sentence.

The Court is expected to decide the case no earlier than January.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


The following is an update from Maryellen Johnson of the Pendulum Foundation:

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative will be arguing before the United States Supreme Court that JLWOP should be unconstitutional for those who have not committed homicide. He will be heard in the next two weeks; the ruling will come down by March.

Whether the ruling will have broader implications depends on how the justices write their ruling – narrowly or broadly. And whether they decide that JLWOP for non-homicide cases IS constitutional.

Our side is in good hands with Bryan. He is brilliant, as well as compassionate.

Justices Will Scrutinize Life Sentences for Youths

Cases of two Florida juveniles raise questions about penalty for non-homicide crimes
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

It did not take long for the judge to determine that the convicted rapist in front of him was irredeemable. "He is beyond help," Judge Nicholas Geeker said of Joe Harris Sullivan. "I'm going to try to send him away for as long as I can."
And then Geeker sentenced Sullivan to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, Sullivan was 13 years old. Now, 20 years after that sentencing in a courtroom in Pensacola, Fla., the Supreme Court will consider whether Sullivan's prison term -- and what his supporters say is an only-in-America phenomenon of extreme sentences for juveniles -- violates the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The case -- which has drawn widespread notice and briefs from former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and others describing their own youthful crimes -- is likely to be a cardinal criminal justice decision for the court this term. It is a natural outgrowth of the court's bitterly divided ruling in 2005 that juveniles cannot be executed for murders they commit.

Those challenging sentences of life without parole for teenagers base their optimism on words in Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion in that case: "The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. . . . It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."

Sullivan is represented by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, who said his client's sentence is no different from the punishment the court found unconstitutional. "They are both effectively death sentences," Stevenson said in an interview. "One is death by execution, and the other is death by incarceration, but they are both terminal sentences." Only two 13-year-olds in the country have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes that were not homicides, Stevenson said, and both of them are held in Florida.

Florida officials would not discuss Sullivan's case before the November arguments, but their brief to the court said states are within their rights to lock up forever those thought to pose a perpetual threat to society. "There is no consensus against life sentences for juveniles, particularly for heinous crimes such as sexual battery," Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar wrote.

Across the country, 111 people are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles that did not result in a death, according to one report; 77 of them are locked up in Florida, for crimes including armed robbery and carjacking. The state took a get-tough approach in the 1990s in response to a crime wave that was "compromising the safety of residents, visitors, and international tourists, and threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry," Florida's brief to the court states. That brief came in the case of Terrance Jamar Graham, a second petition the court accepted. Graham, of Jacksonville, received a life sentence after being part of a group that robbed a barbecue restaurant when he was 16; while on probation a year later, he was part of an armed burglary. Again, a judge doubted Graham's ability to ever change his ways; his accomplices served short sentences.

In accepting both cases and deciding to hear them separately, the court gives itself a wide range of issues to ponder. The justices may rule that such sentences are acceptable for 17-year-olds, for instance, but not 13-year-olds. They could look at the relative seriousness of the crimes, or differentiate the non-homicides in both cases with crimes in which someone is killed.

Sullivan, who his lawyer said had been living on the streets since he was 10, had a troubled history with the law. He had 17 offenses before the crime at issue. In 1989, he and two friends burglarized the home of a 72-year-old woman one day while she was away, then returned later. The woman was raped by one of the juveniles; she never saw his face, identifying him only as a "dark, colored boy." But she remembered that he said something like, "If you can't identify me, I may not have to kill you." At the one-day trial, Sullivan was made to say the words over and over. The victim listened and said: "It's been six months. It's hard, but it does sound similar." The other boys singled out Sullivan as committing the rape. "The conviction itself was very questionable," Stevenson said. "We do think he's innocent." But that is not at issue in the case before the Supreme Court. Stevenson only seeks to have Sullivan, now 33, resentenced so that at some point he becomes eligible for release.

Stevenson contends that Florida made no conscious policy decision that 13-year-olds should be eligible for life without parole for a non-homicide. No state that has debated the question has set the age that low. Instead, he said, Sullivan and others were caught up in a legislative reaction to escalating crime. "What happened is we lowered the minimum age for trying kids as adults and brought them into the adult system, and we expanded the range of very harsh sentences for an adult, and these two things have collided," he said. Besides the two Floridians serving life sentences for non-homicides committed at 13, seven others have received that sentence for crimes resulting in a death, Stevenson said.

But the state of Florida and its supporters said that is evidence that the sentences are carefully applied to the worst of the worst. "It is a rare and agonizing decision to sentence a juvenile to life-without-parole," said a brief filed by Louisiana and 18 other states. "But rare does not mean unconstitutional. Rather, rarity is an index of mercy -- of reluctance to take this severe step." The National District Attorneys Association, supporting Florida, said that while life without parole for juveniles might be unusual, "permanent incarceration for the most violent, hardened juvenile offenders is by no means 'cruel.' "

Sullivan and Graham are supported by a wide-ranging group of organizations: the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and academics and social scientists who argue that juveniles cannot be held responsible for their actions in the same way adults are. For the same reason, they say, younger teenagers are not entrusted with decisions such as voting, marrying or drinking. A group of educators and social scientists told the court that such research was crucial to the 2005 decision that juveniles should not be subject to the death penalty. "The principal purposes of sentencing -- punishing the culpable and deterring the rational -- are not furthered by denying the possibility of parole to adolescents," the group said.

Graham and Sullivan are also supported in an unusual friend-of-the-court brief by former juvenile offenders such as Simpson, director and actor Charles Dutton, and a poet, a software executive and a former assistant U.S. attorney. "At some point, you have to look at them again and ask, 'What have you done with your life?' " said Simpson, who said that as a youth he burned down an abandoned federal building, destroyed property and fought with a police officer. "Maybe 90 percent of them you throw back in, but what about the other 10 percent?"

The cases are Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida.