Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Listening to My Inner Voice

When I met Scott nearly four years ago I was going through some major life changes. I’d just gotten divorced and I’d been working in my current job for nearly four years. The job had initially given me a lot of satisfaction and went a long way toward allowing me to overcome my long time negativity of my self worth. I hadn’t gone to college and I’d spent a long time in an environment where our relative worth was identified by how many stripes we had and the fact that we had stripes and not bars, oak leaf clusters or eagles on our shoulders.

Then I had an opportunity to work as a sales person in the telecommunications industry and it was exactly the kind of job I needed. How good you are is measured in very simple terms. Are you selling, or not? Within a very short period of time, I was the top sales person in my company and I was making more money than I ever dreamed possible. People treated me differently than they ever had before, although I was exactly the same person I’d ever been.

At first I was like a kid in a candy store. I bought a bigger house, I bought expensive clothes, and I treated myself to obscenely priced, self-indulgent day spa treatments and began collecting expensive wine. But the thrill was short lived and I soon realized that the only thing the job and the additional money had done for me was remove those negative feelings of self-worth – which was a good thing, but it certainly wasn’t making me happy or satisfied.

I began thinking of the job as a means to an end. It became a near term way to save for the time when I didn’t need to make a certain level of income. I began thinking in terms of what would come next. I wanted to do something that would make me feel like I was contributing, making a difference or doing some good in the world. I thought maybe I could take my newfound sales and marketing experience and get into fund-raising for a non-profit. I researched it and found that although there are literally thousands of good causes, none of them sparked my passion.

More time went by and I continued to save and bank my commission checks, saving for the time when I could walk away or cut down my hours and do – what?

And I started to write again. I thought, maybe fiction writing is a way to make a difference, if not directly then indirectly. About a year or so later, I popped up here. Life was great and I was following my heart, but there was still a nagging desire to do something that might make a difference to real people.

In December, I posted about the Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life”. I had watched the special, which focused on five inmates in my home State of Colorado who had committed crimes as juveniles, were tried as adults and had received mandatory sentences of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). I was stunned to learn that our country, which currently has over 2,200 juvenile LWOPs incarcerated and Israel, who has 8-12 are the only two countries in the world who sentence juveniles to die in prison. Over 60% of the juveniles currently serving LWOP in Colorado were convicted of felony murder, which means that someone died or was killed while another crime was being committed, but the convicted offender didn’t actually kill the person. Some of the juveniles committed horrible, brutal, heinous crimes. Some of the juveniles made bad decisions that resulted in a death. Some of them killed their parents after years of systematic abuse; some of them are developmentally disabled or mentally ill.

Regardless of the circumstances of the crime, the thought that children as young as fourteen or fifteen would be locked up with adult violent offenders, without therapy or any form of rehabilitation was incomprehensible to me.

In 2006, the State of Colorado changed the laws and decided that LWOP for juveniles was inappropriate. The mandatory sentence for murder and felony murder was reduced to forty years and then the possibility of parole. Forty years is still an enormously harsh sentence, particularly when you consider non-mandatory sentences served for murder, rape, child molestation and other violent crimes, which often allow offenders to be released in less than ten years. Unfortunately, the change was not made retroactive, so we still have 48 people serving LWOP under the earlier mandatory sentencing.

I contacted The Pendulum Foundation after seeing the show and eventually met with Pendulum’s Executive Director, Mary Ellen Johnson. Mary Ellen is a remarkable woman, who became involved with Pendulum fifteen years ago. She has appeared on television programs in several countries, testified before law makers, participated in panel discussions and wrote a book about one of the juveniles, Jacob Ind. The Murder of Jacob was published a number of years ago, but is still available on Amazon.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to help. I could not imagine a system that would dictate that our society would not even open up the possibility that juvenile offenders could be treated, rehabilitated and someday, after taking responsibility for their crimes, at least have the possibility of freedom. I told Mary Ellen to consider me a volunteer for anything she thought I could do – forwarding information out on upcoming events, researching issues – whatever would be useful. Mary Ellen recently contacted me after sharing the December blog post with Curt and Pat Jensen, the founders of Pendulum and asked if I’d be willing to volunteer as their publicist. I don’t know anything about being a publicist, but I’m willing to learn. Mary Ellen and the Jensens know that I work full time and have a limited amount of time to dedicate, but they need all the help in promoting awareness that they can get.

Last night I created a new blog, called Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing. I’ve learned through this blog that the blogosphere can be a powerful medium for establishing dialogue. I have no illusions that trying to raise awareness and garner support for shorter sentences for juvenile offenders will be popular and I fully expect, if I’m lucky enough to draw any traffic that I’ll experience hostility in the blogosphere for the very first time.

But for starters, I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do. I’ve added a link to the new blog on my sidebar and since I know that many of you have experience working in PR and even working in the legal and juvenile justice systems, I’m asking for your help. Please comment or email me with any ideas or advice you have for me. If this issue resonates with you at all, please help me to spread the word. The Pendulum site has a call to action that lists things that you can do.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

There doesn't seem to be common sense used at any level of the justice system and this is one example of that. I cannot accept the death penalty and I cannot understand how some convictions hold such strong and heavy penalties while others are way too lenient

Then I figured it out; it's who's lawyer is more cunning and sly and bodacious. And, who's got connections.

I applaud your efforts and willingness to fight for those who despite legal assistance, weren't given a fair shake.

susan@spinning

Lisa said...

Susan,

I appreciate your thoughtful comment. It's interesting that not long ago the supreme court finally ruled that the states could no longer execute juveniles. LWOP is almost the same as the death sentence. It's the mandatory sentences that I have the biggest problem with. I have a hard time understanding opposition to eliminating mandatory sentences. At the extreme, so many people associate eliminating mandatory sentences with letting the offenders go free and that's not what it means at all. Juvenile offenders should be punished for their crimes, some of them maybe should never be released. But they at least deserve the consideration of a second chance.

Melissa Marsh said...

Lisa -
Bravo for you! I can tell how passionate you are about this cause and it will shine through in your work. Best of luck in this new endeavor. :-)

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm happy you've found the place you're meant to be and where you can use your writing skills for a good cause. I may have told you this before, but I switched from science writing to medical writing in part because the latter gave me the satisfaction of helping people live longer, healthier lives, whereas the former was just a way to make money writing. I hope you find the juvenile LWOP work just as satisfying.

I didn't know you and Scott were newlyweds! Congratulations on that too!

Yourself five years ago would be amazed at your life now.

Lisa said...

Melissa,
Yes, I guess there's something about these cases that hits a nerve. We're very compassionate about trying to help youth who are at risk, but for those who aren't helped in time, there's not a lot of sympathy.

Shauna,
I have felt that sentiment come through in your posts. I will, of course keep toiling with the fiction, but this does give me some satisfaction, even though it's a tough sell. Thank you and yes, my self five years ago would be very surprised to see me now :)

Julie said...

Lisa, every best wish as you become involved with this. I'm catching up on a number of overdue jobs at the moment, but I just popped in to mention that I'd posted a photo of a pub Dickens used to frequent in London Docklands (also Turner and Whistler) if you're interested!

Larramie said...

Is life imitating art or vice versa, Lisa? I applaud the fact that you're taking on a most difficult challenge -- a problem which begins where? However, unlike a certain fictional character, you'll be able to live without regret. Much good luck in creating favorable public relations...yet don't you DARE stop writing!

Therese said...

Excellent, Lisa--I'm so pleased for you, and admire your passion for this very worthy cause.

Yogamum said...

Lisa, I really admire your dedicating your time and energy for this cause. Our juvenile justice system (sounds like an oxymoron) is in great need of people like you who are smart, motivated and willing to contribute.

Froog said...

Hi Lisa,

I dropped by to see how you got on with the Alain de Botton book I recommended on Book Book last month.... and find you campaigning for reform of the criminal justice system.

I was, briefly, a lawyer in the UK, and spent some time doing voluntary work on capital appeals (in Louisiana) when I was a student. As with the cases you mention here, a large number of death row prisoners were sentenced when still teenagers; almost all of them are from minorities; many if not most are educationally sub-normal, if not actually brain-damaged or mentally ill; and just about all of them were convicted and sentenced largely because they got lousy representation (some court-appointed counsel do a bang-up job, but many do not). The UK justice system is far from perfect, but it's decades ahead of America's.

This is a good fight, but a very tough one. I wish you luck with it.

Lisa said...

Julie,

Love the pictures and I love that you've got a pub where Charles Dickens used to hang out! I'll be back over to comment later.

Larramie, Believe me, based on the circumstances of some of these people, all I can say is there but for the grace of God go many of us. No worries! I'm adding this to my fiction writing. Where, she asks herself, will you find the time? I think I will manage.

Therese, I appreciate that. I may be deluded, but I think this is one of those times when one person can begin to make a little difference. Even if it's only because some of the LWOPs know that people out here do care. Many of them have been forgotten, even by their families.

Yogamum, There are so many misconceptions that people have about how "the system" -- or as it truly is, a set of systems really function. I hope that by trying to spread awareness and understanding, some of the misconceptions might change -- the biggest being that the system is fair and that anyone who's been convicted got what s/he deserved.

Froog, I literally laughed out loud when I read your first sentence! Yes, I'm over here charging after windmills. Coincidentally, I finished "On Love" last night and I think Alain de Botton is brilliant. I'm reading a Mary Gaitskill now but hope to get to "How Proust Can Save Your Life" soon. I always like your book recommendations.

Yes, we have significant problems in our justice system and clearly the prosecution rate of minorities is far greater than it ought to be. As you know, each state has its own laws and court systems and I've noted that Louisiana also has one of the highest rates of juvenile LWOP convictions in the US as well.

On a bittersweet note, in Colorado, Tim Masters, who'd served 10 years in prison for a brutal murder he was accused of committing when he was 15 (for which there was no physical evidence and that he always denied) was freed today based on DNA evidence, which was not used when he was tried.

Thanks so much and keep those great reviews coming at The Book Book.

Usman said...

Lisa,
I have always believed in that adage about taking the first step. as soon as i get over the flu plus a million other things I'll be at your site.
Children, are the world's best hope, especially in todays polarized world.

moonrat said...

good for you--this is such an important issue, and one we tend to let horrify us for one episode of Law & Order and then forget all about. children with LWOP are one of the huge disasters of an imperfect legal system--both because that sentencing happens at all, and because of the awful class biases that are used as as grounds for fear when it is being passed.

thanks for having a cause and teaching us about it.

Julie said...

Lisa - just a passing thought - but assume you've looked into the area of personality profiling in previous jobs? It can help clarify innate abilities and motivations.

Sustenance Scout said...

Hey there and congratulations! Who knows where this work will lead and meanwhile you're following your heart down a road you know will be challenging and rewarding. And thanks for noting the Tim Masters news. Wow all around! K.

debra said...

Many years ago, I worked as a counselor with teens in a drop-in center. I tended to gravitate to the kids no one else liked. It seemed to me that the ones who were the least lovable needed the most. I remember going to one boy's expulsion hearing as his advocate. We were able to get a suspension. Today that boy is a father and owns a successful funeral parlor.
What would have happened to that young man had he been thrust on the street? I shudder to think about it.
Years later I was a victim of a violent crime. This solidified my point of view. I knew that someone had to advocate for kids.
Thank you, Lisa.

Charles Gramlich said...

A worthy cause. I'll check out the site. I'm absolutely aware that there is very little or no fairness in the way sentences for various kinds of crimse are handled, and it is ridiculous the way some offenders are treated leniently while others are treated harshly. As for juveniles being sentenced to long terms, it very much depends on the crime to me. A brutal, heinous act is different from just being there when a murder was committed.

Patti said...

so many go through life thinking that they couldn't possibly make a difference. and then there are the lisa's of this world. i admire and respect where your heart is leading you. may your success be more than you can imagine.

Carleen Brice said...

Well now, you're my hero!!! Good on you!

Scott Mattlin said...

You are my heroine as well.

-And, I love you. -Scott

Lisa said...

Usman,

I do hope you are feeling better soon and I hope things in Pakistan have settled down.

Moonrat,

I started the other blog because I figured I couldn't mix juvenile justice and writing very well -- but I won't promise not the throw a post about it in here now and then. Thanks for commenting. :)

Julie,

No -- don't assume anything. I am a master at jumping right into the middle of things I know nothing about...so if you have any recommendations, please email me!

Karen,

Wasn't the Tim Masters thing something? Mary Ellen Johnson is going to guest blog at my other place within the next day or so to talk about Tim Masters and what impact his release may have on some of the other cases. Apparently, the interrogation of the 15 year old was horrendous.

Debra,

I am so sorry that you went through the trauma of being the victim of a violent crime. And no -- thank you for the work you did with the at risk teens. I have a long letter from one of the offenders, who is now in our notorious SuperMax and I'm going to ask his permission to post excerpts from it. I'm also working with Mary Ellen so that we can contact more of the LWOPs and ask them to write essays that we can post. Every stereotype you've ever seen in a movie about prisons is true and then some. Once a juvenile is locked in that sick environment, each year that goes by brings that kid further away from being able to function "out here". It's so much worse than I'd ever imagined. Thank you for your support.

Charles,

Thanks for commenting here and at http://compassioninjuvenilesentencing.wordpress.com/ (could I have picked a longer URL)?

At some point, I'd really be interested in your thoughts on the changes that occur in the development of the adolescent mind from the teens and into the early twenties, and then the subsequent change that appears to happen after 30. From what I've read, something like up to 80% of the incarcerated male youth have been abused themselves and with males, untreated abuse appears to manifest itself in rage. Then something seems to happen after 30 when the offenders seem to "wake up" and can't quite believe how out of touch with reality they were as teenagers. Another tidbit I heard recently was that for inmates older than 50, the risk for them reoffending drops down to nearly zero. I'm really interesting in how valid the physiological aspects are.

Patti, Thank you and I hope that I can at least make a little difference. I am in awe of people like Mary Ellen Johnson and Curt and Pat Jensen who have been fighting for these kids for years, despite the apathy and sometimes hostility that comes with the territory.

Carleen, Please don't say that. I haven't done anything yet. You, on the other hand are doing incredible work with children that will probably keep many of them from making the mistakes that so many of the LWOPs have. Keep up the good work, my friend.

Scott,

Nothing worthwhile that I'm doing with my life right now would be possible without you. I love you too.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Wow, Lisa, you continue to impress me and show, through your actions, that following one's passion is never a mistake.

Lisa said...

Judy,

People like you, who worked for seven years on something you believed in and then broke through with a fantastic novel have inspired me to believe that with determination, anything is possible.

Vesper said...

Kudos to you, Lisa! I'm very impressed. You choose to fight when most people would probably just hide their head in the sand. Bravo and good luck!

iyan and egusi soup: said...

lisa, you're a tremendous, courageous spirit. and you know i admire your willingness to listen to your inner voice. i have such good feelings about the future for you. please email me if there's a way i can help you.

SzélsőFa said...

what can I say...congratulations. It is extremely important that one fins a case one can be devoted to.
and yours is a rightful one.

kate said...

Lisa, what an inspiring post. I agree with so many of these comments and applaud your passion and drive and courage. I'll check out the new blog!

Lana Gramlich said...

Best of luck with your new direction.

Julie said...

Lisa, just caught up on your reply...

I'm not directly involved with a business environment, so while there is an awful lot out there in terms of sophisticated personal assessment questionnaires etc, you're probably best to ask around your own locality. Like everything, some stuff is excellent, some isn't!

Myer's Briggs is the standard inventory - its pretty basic, but a handy rule of thumb for gauging yourself (or those you're working with in a team) in terms of degrees of intraversion and extraversion etc, (and implied suitability for certain roles). Hope that gives you a starting point if you're interested. Believe some authors use it in checking character motivations and consistency.

steve said...

Lisa,

A belated note of encouragement--it's certainly a worthy cause. When I was writing a column for the Elkhart Truth, I once did a column on Howard James, one of three Pulitzer Prize winners with Elkhart roots (1968 journalism). He had written a book on the juvenile justice system in the 1950s and '60s. Indiana was one of the worst--they actually flogged boys with the lash. At least such barbarities don't exist now, but certainly life without parole for minors is cruel.

Tim said...

Lisa --

This is a very short comment because I've left a bunch of long ones and none of them has gone through. If this one sticks, I'll rewrite the others.

Mardougrrl said...

I am so excited for you! I could tell from your previous post that you were passionate on this topic, and as usual, you are not one to just sit and think about something.

I admire you SO much, Lisa.

Tim said...

Ooookaaaayyyyyy . . .

I'm having a terrible time with Blogspot -- spent hours trying to leave comments for you and Cindy only to get blank screens when I push PUBLISH.

Anyway, I wanted to say that you're a class act in every possible way and that one of the best things about the Internet is that it brings us into contact with people whom we'd never otherwise have a chance to meet.

And I also wanted to say that I think there are only three things you can do with your time: you can waste it, you can spend it, and you can invest it. When you look at where you are now versus where you were five years ago, and when you look at where you're putting your energies now, it's clear to me that you're investing your time, and in a way that brings you joy.

Lisa said...

Steve,

That interview must have been fascinating. Yes, I think we forget too quickly the horrible conditions that existed in the past for juveniles and we don't express our outrage often enough at the conditions that continue to exist.

Mardouggrl, It does mean a lot to me. I just hope I can find some meaningful way to help.

Tim,

I'm sorry blogger has been giving you so much trouble. I'm using Wordpress for the new blog and it doesn't seem to cause nearly as many problems for non-blogger users. I really like the idea that "there are only three things you can do with your time: you can waste it, you can spend it, and you can invest it". I think I need to keep that in mind all the time. You seem to be a master at time management and I hope I can follow some of the great advice you have in your Writers Resources to invest my time as much as possible. Thanks for the kind words.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

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.


Virginia Woolf