Back in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for any crimes besides murder is cruel and unusual punishment.This week the high court took another look at life in prison, except this time for juveniles under the age of 14 convicted of homicide.
NPR reports that currently 79 people are serving life terms for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger. Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to be the deciding vote on a decision expected by early summer.
Youth Radio’s Reginald Dwayne Betts contributed to an amicus brief in the 2010 Supreme Court case. At 16 years old he was found guilty for carjacking and spent more than nine years in adult prisons. But his sentence could have put him behind bars for life. This commentary originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, in May 2010.
I remember meeting a guy even younger than I was, waiting for the bus to go to prison. I’ll call him Rashid. His voice still carried the cracks and high notes of adolescence, and his smooth face had never seen a razor. We were headed to Southampton Correctional Center in Virginia.
No fewer than a dozen of us were teenagers, all with peers at home waiting on driver licenses, graduations and proms – while we waited for a prison cell. Rashid’s time was legendary: three life sentences with no chance for parole. It meant he awoke each morning knowing he would one day flatline in a cell.
In prison, guys told me that Rashid robbed and raped an old lady. His crime had no explanation, and everyone I ever talked to about it thought it was wild, heinous, and unfathomable. Rashid didn’t talk about his charges, and I couldn’t look at him without thinking how his sentence would last until his final breath. In the visiting room, I caught glimpses of his family and it almost seemed normal. Except that Rashid, the youngest among them, rarely smiled. And in prison, surrounded by the violence cells inspire in men, he was just a kid. There was no meanness about him, just the fragility of someone in the deep end, arms flailing, unable to swim.
When I looked at him, I remembered the judge looking down at me, asking if I understood my charges carried a possible life sentence. Rashid wasn’t old enough to drive, vote, or serve on a jury of his peers – but he was old enough to walk out of a courtroom with a sentence that ends in a casket. After I met him, my nine-year sentence for carjacking seemed like a gift.
Everything I did while incarcerated meant something because I could envision a day when I’d be free, and that vision pushed me. Because I had a release date, I recognized that the time was a way for me to improve myself. Seventeen hours each day to read, study and exercise – to think and become a man far different than the sixteen-old boy who plead guilty to carjacking.
As teenagers, our lives are impulse and reaction. I’m not the same person I was at 16. No one is. Juvenile offenders who are years away from the maturity and sensibility of a 25 or 30 year old, need to know that society believes they can be more than their crimes. They need to know we believe rehabilitation is not only possible, but real.
All any incarcerated minor wants to believe, is that life can be more than a series of cell doors.
Editor’s Note: Since being released from prison, Reginald Dwayne Betts graduated from the University of Maryland where he served as the commencement speaker. He’s published two books, and this year is the recipient of the NAACP Image Award and a Soros Justice Fellowship.
In Gun Hill Road, director Rashaad Ernesto Green has written a loving, complex portrait of a Bronx family in struggle. The patriarch, Enrique (Esai Morales), has been in prison for three years. In that time, his wife (played by Judi Reyes of Scrubs fame) has had an affair. But Enrique feels most betrayed by the changes in his son Michael, who’s in the middle of a physical transition to becoming a teen girl.
Green said he was inspired by a member of his family who went through something similar as the father in the film. “I watched this family deteriorate…as an artist, I wanted to make a piece of art that didn’t necessarily give them all the answers, but at least pointed them in the way of love and acceptance,” he said.
Green said he wanted the script to reflect a Latino family that’s driven by their love for one other. It’s a relief, watching the movie, to see a man of color character who doesn’t immediately lurch into physically abuse when confronted with a transgender child, especially as you watch him dealing with his own sexual victimization in prison and the phobias that it produces.
Ultimately, there is violence in Enrique’s reaction to his son’s transformation. But Green was careful to present a man who’s acknowledging the impact of his absence. “He struggles within himself because his love is what sort of holds him to a higher standard of behavior. He doesn’t react like a monster per se.
Everything he does, even though skewed, is somehow out of love. He believes he needs to right his child, even though the child doesn’t need to be righted, because the child isn’t doing anything wrong,” he said.
Green acknowledged this is a progressive perspective that doesn’t look even reflect what happened in his own family as it dealt with this issue. He said, “for Enrique, his mentality has been shaped by the environment that he’s come up in, by the Bronx, that’s defined his sense of manhood. I wanted to draw a family that has a realistic response.”
The movie follows Enrique’s son Michael as she becomes Vanessa. The lead actress, Harmony Santana, made her movie debut with this film. Often, straight actors are cast as the opposite sex to play transgender people. Green wanted to find someone transgender to play the roles of Michel and Vanessa.
He said for months, he searched nightclubs, LGBT organizations, and dance workshops…and finally met Santana at a Queens pride parade where she was working the HIV prevention booth. “I went up to what I thought was a young Latino boy, someone who might fit the description of the character. She took off her sunglasses and I had to take a step back at how beautiful she was. She looked angelic, and she told me she was at the beginning of her transition.”
Santana told Green she was Puerto Rican and Dominican, had lived in the Bronx, and had always dreamed of acting. It didn’t take very long for him to cast her. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, the viewer sees Michael’s routine to physically transform himself into Vanessa, from bundling himself into lingerie, to pressing on nails and heels to enhancing her full features with lipstick and eyeshadow. “It’s one of those moments in the film where you’re in awe,” Green reflected. “She’s not acting. You’re seeing right into the soul of someone who does this in their own lives…and you’re getting absolute truth and authenticity in that moment.”
Green said Santana’s transition in real life unfolded in an almost parallel rhythm to the transition she was portraying in the movie, and that it was incredible to watch her gain confidence as the character Vanessa. He says Santana is planning to visit her own father in the DR, so that she can reveal her true self to him for the first time.
Right now, there are 17,000 inmates in California prisons serving life with the possibility of parole. For years, no one has really known how many of these prisoners are dying before they are paroled. And, it’s taken a Public Records Act request by a reporter to find out.
Nancy Mullane is a frequent KALW reporter and recent winner of theEdward R. Murrow award for Best Documentary for her reporting on lifers in California. Her documentary is Act One in This American Life’s Long Shot episode. Mullane sat down with KALW’s News Director, Holly Kernan to talk about what this new data means.
HOLLY KERNAN: So Nancy tell us what you’ve found out, what’s this new data?
NANCY MULLANE: Well, Holly, what we found out through the release of these Public Records Act requests is that the individuals in California who have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for murder – not death, not life without the possibility of parole, but the 17,000 in California who have been sentenced to prison with the possibility of parole, meaning if they meet the conditions of parole, they will be released – what we found is that, number one, they serve…since 1988, when the governor of California was given the responsibility to review parole board decisions…
KERNAN:…Which significantly politicized those decisions, and then the governor was much less likely to grant parole…
MULLANE: That’s right. Because what happens every year is that the parole board holds 4 to 5,000 parole board hearings for the 17,000 murder 1 or murder 2 prisoners. And of those 17,000 prisoners and of the 4 to 5,000 parole board hearings, they only find about 5% suitable. And over the last 23 years since the governor was given this authority, the four different governors have reversed, just unilaterally reversed, 75% to 99% of all the parole board suitability findings sent to the governor.
So what that meant is that we’ve not only increased the population of this one cohort of prisoners in California from about 5,000 to about 17,000, but what it also means is those in prison are going to serve longer sentences. And now what we find out through this just-released data that we’ve gotten, and for the first time because the CDCR hadn’t even compiled this data before, what we found out is from 2000 to 2010, the number of individuals who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for first or second degree murder, only 674 were released from prison. But what we’ve just found out is during those same years, 775 died in prison hoping for parole.
KERNAN: So, you’re more likely to die in prison than get released on parole?
MULLANE: That’s correct. According to the CDCR’s newly released statistic.
KERNAN: And the other thing that your new data found is that prisoners serving life with the possibility of parole are also now serving longer sentences?
MULLANE: That’s right. So let’s look at 2009, for instance. Well, actually let’s start back before the governor got the authority to review parole board decisions. Back in 1988, a prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for second degree murder served an average of five years. A prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole with first degree murder served about 14 years. But in 2009 – this is now almost 20 years after the governor had this authority – someone serving first degree murder is now serving 27 years, or 14 years more than in 1988. And for second degree murder? Twenty-four years, or 20 years more. So we’re finding that people are not only serving much longer sentences, but they also have a greater chance of dying while they’re waiting for parole.
In somewhat traditional California fashion, it appears that while voters support Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to send prison inmates to the counties to alleviate prison overcrowding, they do not want to pay to implement the plan. According to a new Field Poll released this morning:
By a 51% to 37% margin voters back Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to comply with the High Court’s ruling by transferring lower-risk inmates from state prisons to local county jails and other community-based facilities.
However, voters do not believe that state taxes should have to be raised or that the temporary tax increases enacted by the state several years ago extended to pay for this transfer.
The same poll found that a large majority of Californians support reforming Three Strikes, which sends repeat offenders to prison for lengthy periods, up to life in prison (sometimes for low-level offenses like shoplifting). According to the poll, three in four voters “say they now agree that the state’s ‘three strikes’ law should be modified to give judges and juries more discretion in deciding the sentences given to persons convicted of a third felony as a way to ease prison overcrowding.”
Former BART officer Johannes Mehserle was released at midnight after 11 months of his two-year sentence for shooting and killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day. After a jury trial in Los Angeles last summer, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and received the minimum sentence of two years in state prison.
Protesters In Downtown Oakland 2010
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, chaos erupted at the Fruitvale BART station. After a night of celebration, partygoers were heading home, including 22-year-old Oscar Grant. BART police were called to Fruitvale BART station in response to an alleged fight on a train coming in from San Francisco. Johannes Mehserle was one of the officers restraining the individuals believed to be involved in the fight. While attempting to restrain Oscar Grant, Mehserle drew his gun and shot Grant once in the back. Grant later died at Highland Hospital.
Mehserle testified in court saying he accidently pulled his gun instead of his taser gun. Grant was unarmed. The shooting stirred up racial tensions in the city, reigniting Oakland’s long history of tension between its police force and the community. Mehersle, a white man, was videotaped from multiple angles, shooting Grant, a black man. The incident was followed by violent protests and looting in downtown Oakland.
Youth Radio has been following the Oscar Grant case since the beginning. Below is a photo timeline of the case they’ve created.
Check back for updates on reaction from Oakland, Los Angeles and across the U.S.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and promise you that this will be the first of two posts on Present Shock, the Douglas Rushkoff book that has been getting a mountain of attention in the tech press since it was released earlier this month.