Friday, December 14, 2007
When Kids Get Life
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On November 21st I watched an episode of Frontline, called When Kids Get Life. I was completely unprepared to learn that in our country, there are over 2,200 juveniles who are in adult prisons serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
In the rest of the world, there are a total of twelve juvenile offenders serving life without the chance of parole. Let me say that again. In the rest of the world there are only twelve.
In my home state of Colorado, there are currently 46 offenders who were convicted as juveniles and who are serving LWOP. When Kids Get Life profiles five of them.
I feel compassion for the victims and for the families of the victims. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one to a violent crime. I lived in the communities where two of the crimes occurred and well remember the shocking stories unfolding. But I don’t believe that the desires of the victims can weigh as heavily on how we choose to mete out justice in our society as it does.
Some people should never leave prison because they will always pose a threat to the rest of us. Some of these juveniles should probably never leave prison. But the concept that we, as a civilized society would decide that children are irredeemable, should have no chance at rehabilitation or redemption is appalling to me. The idea that a person who is too young to drive a car, join the military or buy a beer, can be tried and sentenced to stay in prison until they die a natural death, kill themselves or someone kills them is inconceivable.
I contacted Mary Ellen Johnson, the National Director of The Pendulum Foundation to see what I could do. An incredible woman, Mary Ellen has been fighting for changes in our juvenile justice system for fifteen years. She’s appeared on Frontline and on television programs broadcast in other countries. She’s been interviewed many times and has dedicated herself to trying to help a small group of people the rest of us would rather not think about. She’s been harassed and threatened for what she does.
Mary Ellen became involved in the case of Jacob Ind in 1992. Jacob Ind murdered his mother and stepfather in the mountain town of Woodland Park. I lived in neighboring Colorado Springs at the time and I followed the case in the news daily. During the trial, it was revealed that both Jacob and his older brother had been subjected to years of violent abuse and to sexual molestation. Jacob Ind was fifteen and he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Over the years, I’ve see his case in the news now and then. When I saw Frontline, I was nearly sick. Jacob Ind is now thirty years old and bears little resemblance to the skinny teenager we all saw on the televised trial. He has now spent as much time behind bars as he did in our world.
Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen, fifteen and sixteen at the time of their arrests were also profiled on Frontline. Nathan murdered his mother and his friend Erik helped him to clean up the crime scene afterwards. Nathan had been beaten and sexually molested by his parents for years. He’d run away repeatedly, but was always returned to his abusers. Erik and another friend's parents called the county social services to report the abuse and they were told that social services would take down a report, but the reality was that he was a boy over the age of 13 and with the caseload they had, nothing could be done. Nathan and Erik are both serving life without the possibility of parole.
I hesitate to shine a light on the stories of the abuse victims who killed their parents because in some ways, it feels like I’m trying to excuse their crimes or imply that the sentence of life without the possibility of parole should be used in some cases and not others. I do feel that abuse victims should be subject to special consideration, but I also don’t believe any juvenile should get this sentence, no matter what the circumstances of the crime.
No child should be sentenced to die in prison without any hope of redemption.
The Rocky Mountain News published thirty days of journal entries from Nathan Ybanez a couple of years ago. For me, they were a unique and heartbreaking view into what happens to children who go to prison. Rolling Stone did a piece on Nathan in November of 2006.
A fellow blogger coined the term obligation overload some months ago during a discussion about all of the social causes that need our attention: the environment, abused animals, children, disaster victims, incurable diseases, the homeless – the list goes on and on. I’ve always believed that we need to help other people and despite rumor to the contrary, there are a lot of good people who are making change and doing good things.
In 2006, in large part due to the work of Pendulum, Colorado passed a law changing the mandatory sentence for juveniles from life without parole to 40 years before the possibility of parole. Previously, offenders as young as 12 were eligible for life without parole. The law was not made retroactive, however, so it does not affect the sentences of Colorado's 46 juvenile LWOPs. A map showing the number of juveniles serving LWOP by state is here. We have nearly 50 in our state but several other states house more than 300.
There aren’t many people who are trying to help convicted murderers. Maybe that’s why I feel like I need to. I can’t seem to get it out of my head that no other country in the world does to its child offenders what we do here. There’s a call to action on the Pendulum site that lists some things that people can do to help.
Talking about it is something we can do here. I believe that through raising awareness and through expressing opinions to our state lawmakers, we can make slow change. I’ve written to all of my state representatives and state senators and I’ve been surprised and encouraged at the number of responses I’ve received.
Please watch the episode of Frontline, visit the Pendulum website and some of the other links and think about what you can do to help. If you have suggestions and ideas about what can be done to raise awareness or to accelerate changing the laws, even if you don't have the time to work them yourself, please comment or send me an email.
If you don't agree that juveniles should be given the opportunity at a second chance, tell me why. If you support change, tell me that too. Let’s talk about this.
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It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.