The pendulum swings: A mash up of juvenile justice reform stories

The last two months have seen an enormous amount of news coverage on the subject of child incarceration and pretrial practices. With recent coverage on the politics of trying kids as adults in Denver as well as national and international coverage of children sentenced to die in prison, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward true justice for kids.

Here’s a review and synopsis of just a few of those articles and productions.

Local Coverage

How victim rights became a juggernaut shaping spending, laws and the future of punishment

On October 18, Westword published a major expose on the political power grab orchestrated by Colorado’s district attroneys. The article by Alan Prendergast demonstrates the incestuous political relationship between district attorneys and organizations claiming to represent victims. Prendergast goes into painstaking detail to document conflicts of interest and ethical violations by district attorneys who hold out funding to victims organizations as a carrot in exchange for political support when advocating against juvenile justice reforms in the Colorado State Legislature.

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A Colorado teen sentenced to forty years gets a second chance

In an excellent follow up profile by Juliet Wittman published on October 25, Westword chronicles the mental, emotional and physical changes in 32-year old Josh Beckius who was sentenced as an adult to 40 years for his non-violent role in a botched robbery that resulted in the death of Dayton James when he was 14.

Starting with Beckius’ early days in solitary confinement, Wittman blocks out his’ transformation from a rough and tumble fighter to prison mentor culminating in an eventual transfer to Denver’s Peer 1 Community Corrections facility where he’s on work release and is allowed to visit his family on weekends.

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Direct Fail

In the recently released December issue of 5280 Magazine,  Natasha Gardner takes on the history of juvenile justice from its beginnings in Chicago in 1899 to its tragic overnight decline in 1993 when Colorado held a special legislative session to allow district attorneys the right to file adult charges directly against children.

Perhaps the most complete picture of the policy debate over juvenile justice reform in Colorado, Gardner profiles several children given adult sentences, interviews the Executive Director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council and talks with three state reform activists before concluding there is “little evidence that direct file discourages youth crime.”

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Colorado Voices: Second chance for teen killers?

In a recent guest editorial published in The Denver Post on November 26, Jessica Peck profiles the case of Erik Jensen.  Sentenced as an adult to life without parole when he was 17, prosecutors argued that Jensen–while he didn’t actually kill anyone–was partly responsible for the death of his best friend’s abusive mother because he tried to help his friend cover it up.

Peck also documents a 25-year statistical study commissioned by The Pendulum Foundation that shows teens receive much harsher sentences than adults convicted of similar acts. She goes on to point out that the juvenile clemency advisory board created  for the express  purpose of commuting the sentences of deserving child offenders has not shortened a single juvenile life sentence.

National Coverage

Young Kids, Hard Time

Airing on MSNBC November 20 and November 26,  Calamari Productions profiled the lives of children as young as 12-years old who were tried as adults and are now living their lives in prison. Focusing in on 15-year old Colt Lundy who was convicted of killing his step-father with the help of a 12-year old accomplice, this ground breaking documentary explores “one of the darkest corners of society” to help adults understand how “life behind bars truly is–straight from the kids who now call prison home.”

International Coverage

The United States: Condemned to life, they know they will die in prison

 

Airing on French broadcast network TFI and posted to their website on November 23, this solid news report draws on interviews with Jacob Ind and Trevor Jones. Ind was sentenced to juvenile life without parole when he was convicted in the deaths of his abusive mother and step father in 1993. Jones, whose first degree murder sentence was overturned, is serving a life sentence for felony murder in the accidental shooting death of a friend to whom he was trying to sell a gun.  A rough translation is included below.
[Introduction]
Frequently, the debate rages over the age at which one is eligible to be locked up in jail.  In the United States, the issue has been decided twenty years ago: minors can be tried in adult courts and some of them are sentenced to Life Without the possibility of Parole.  Guillaume Debré, Natalia Mendoza and Fabien Ortiz met some of those young prisoners in Colorado, destined to finish their lives behind bars.  This is tonight’s feature story.
[Jacob IND]
“I cannot believe I’m going to die here… [voice-over in French] that I will become old and break down in this prison”Jacob Ind is only 33 years old.  Yet he has spent more than half his life in this cell block -18 years!  And he already knows that he will end his days here.

“I will never have a second chance.  For me, it’s forbidden.  That’s what’s hardest.  And hurt leads to anger”

[Title: Jacob IND - condemned to life in prison]

[Archival Footage]
In 1992, Ind killed his stepfather and his mother who sexually abused him from the time he was four-years old.  To set an example, the District Attorney decided to direct file his case in adult court.  Jacob Ind was only 15-years old.  Found guilty, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“I was really a child.  I was like a baby [voice-over in French].  Today people refuse to recognize that I have changed.  People still consider me to be a monster, an animal, a threat to society,  without even considering who I have become”

Like Jacob there are 2,300 prisoners who were minors at the time of their crime, sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in jail:  The result of a dramatic crack down on juvenile crime in the 1990s.

With the stated intention of tackling issues of youth gangs and violence, many states in the U.S. decided to lower the age at which one can be considered for entry into the penal system.  43 of 50 American states have lowered the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult.

[Guillaume DEBRE - US correspondant]
Every year, nearly 200,000 minors are removed form juvenile courts to be prosecuted in adult courts.  Most of them are 16 or 17 but some are even younger.

[Mary Ellen JOHNSON]
“Lorenzo, 14, life in prison.  Raymond, 16, life in prison. Phillip, 15, life in prison, …”

For 15 years, Mary Ellen Johnson has denounced the abusive nature of a judicial system that places the emphasis on crime and punishment.  Her rallying cry is for minors to once again be treated as kids.

“[Under the age of 18] You can’t go to an R-rated movie [voice-over in French] or even buy cigarettes or beer but if a child commits a crime they are judged as adults and they can be jailed for life. That doesn’t make any sense”

Wrong, replies this District Attorney who uses a non-statistical correlation to show that the increased jailing of minors in the 1990s has reduced crime rates…

“It’s a fairly narrow… [voice over in French] Our juvenile courts are no longer adapted to minors who commit crimes as horrendous as those committed by adults.  Should we release them simply on the basis that they are under 18?  Of course not”.

Trevor Jones also knows he will never be afforded a second chance.  Sentenced to life in prison he studies Ancient Greek and Theology even though his sentence forbids him from being released until August 3rd , 3006.  995 years from now.

“[voice-over in French] In the United States, it is forbidden to execute minors but in truth, I have been sentenced to death.  My execution is simply a slower, protracted one”.

This year, dozens of minors risk Life Without Parole.  All are accused of murder, the youngest is only 14 years old.

[Laurence Ferari -news anchor] This issue is such a sensitive one in the United States that it’s legality is now being debated in the Supreme Court.

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