Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By: Sayre Quevedo
Michigan is known for its auto industry and views of the Great Lakes, but in juvenile justice circles, the state is also getting buzz as a battleground for youth sentencing reform.
This past June, a case that originated in Alabama resulted in the U.S Supreme Court banning mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Since then, Michigan has continued to debate legislation and rulings concerning youth sentences.
Three weeks ago, lawmakers in Michigan introduced a bill that would give parole boards the jurisdiction to hear the cases of juveniles serving "life without parole" sentences. This would allow inmates who committed their crimes before the age of 15 to become eligible for parole after 15 years in prison. And in the eastern district of Michigan, a case is pending that would challenge the US Supreme Court's decision on the basis of specific wording in the state's constitution.
These bills are particularly significant considering Michigan is currently the state with the second highest amount of juvenile lifers in the nation, next to Pennsylvania.
If these bills becomes law, they will affect the approximately 360 inmates currently serving juvenile life sentences in the state. One of them, Efren Paredes, is serving a life sentence without parole for a murder he was convicted of when he was 15 years old. Youth Radio shared Paredes's story back in June, when he was still waiting to see if Michigan would retroactively apply the new Supreme Court ruling to inmates already serving juvenile life without parole sentences. In that case, inmates like Paredes, who has already served more than 15 years of his sentence, would have the opportunity to apply for release.
But two weeks ago, Michigan's Appeals Courts decided that, as a result of "limited court resources", the ruling would only apply to current and future cases. On Monday we asked Paredes, now 39 years old, about his reaction to the decision. He spoke to us by phone from Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan.
YR: What have you been doing with your case since the ruling put down by the U.S Supreme Court?
EP: We've been waiting to see what the state court was going to do because after the U.S Supreme Court decision.
We'd been talking to psychologists and psychiatrists, people who do evaluations, people to look over information in the case that we may have to present either to the parole board or the court, if we have to go back for resentencing. It's kind of been about covering a myriad of issues because we didn't know what decision the court was going to make, here in the state.
YR: What was your reaction when the Michigan Appeals Court decided it wasn't going to be retroactive?
EP: I was disappointed with the decision but at the same time I knew that even if we had received a favorable decision, the state Attorney General would have still appealed it anyway and we would still be going to Michigan Supreme Court regardless.
The decision could have gone either way. Obviously I was optimistic and I had hopes for a positive decision but I was prepared for a negative decision because we have a conservative court of appeals. I was being realistic about what those options could be.
YR: You've talked about this idea of creating legislation that would work for both sides -- juvenile lifers and victim's families. But we've spoken to victim's organizations and they seem more comfortable with keeping lifers behind bars, whereas your motivation would be having the opportunity to get out. So, what's the middleground there?
EP: I try to give consideration to all sides. I understand it's not just about the juveniles who are trying to be given opportunity for release. I also understand there are victim's families that have to be given consideration as well. We've tried to that in this process. We want to make it so it works for everybody. I think that's the best way this can finally end, if everyone comes to the table.
The legislation that we're pushing for the case, the opinion we're seeking is just a meaningful opportunity. We're not asking for the release of every juvenile lifer. I think that if we all understand that this isn't a 'get out of jail free card', this isn't saying everyone should be released because I don't even believe that. What I do believe is that people should receive an opportunity, that we shouldn't condemn children to die in prison and that they should be rehabilitated.
YR: One of the reasons behind the Appeals Court's decision make the ruling not retroactive was that they felt there weren't enough judicial resources to handle all the appeals cases. What's your reaction to that?
EP: Using fiscal reasons to deny someone an opportunity for parole eligibility--not to say that these people would be released -- is absurd. Laws change all the time, legislation is passed every day that affects how things will be handled in different areas and they do involve costs. In this case, because these children were convicted of homicide crimes it's easier for judges and politicians to say, "We don't want to look at children who have been convicted of homicide." It's because of the nature of their crimes.
YR: Do you feel more prepared for what's next -- rulings and appeals -- than you did before?
EP: Absolutely. Early on I was young, I was...It was nearly twenty-four years ago when all this began. It was much more difficult at that time because having no exposure to the criminal justice system, either from my experiences or other people's experiences, I had no idea what was going on. Now I do know. I'm much older now. I was a teenager then. I'm entering my 40's pretty soon so I've have had a lot of time to think about all this and be realistic about it and not to think one court's decision is going to be the final answer, unless it's the US Supreme Court or the legislature. So, I'm definitely more prepared this time around.
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