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These NBA and NFL Stars Want Prosecutors To Stop Seeking Life Without Parole For Kids

Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Levy, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Stan Van Gundy

Flanked by local advocates in Detroit during a meeting are (second from left) DeAndre Levy, Anquan Boldin and Don Carey, former and current players for the Detroit Lions
Angela LaChica

These NBA and NFL Stars Want Prosecutors To Stop Seeking Life Without Parole For Kids

Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Levy, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Stan Van Gundy

Just last week, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery found out he would spend yet another Christmas behind bars in Louisiana. He has spent more than 50 Christmases there, but he thought this year might be different. The parole board was set to hear his case for release, but on the day of the hearing, the board delayed it.

In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was president, a judge sentenced the then 17-year-old Montgomery to life without parole. America is the only place in the world where prosecutors regularly try kids as adults and request that kids be sentenced to die behind bars with no hope of freedom.

But Montgomery now has a second chance, thanks to a string of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized that kids are different from adults. They have underdeveloped brains, impairing judgment and impulse control, and are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. Unsurprisingly, those who make their way into the criminal-justice system are often themselves victims (pdf) of physical abuse, sexual abuse, extreme poverty, and trauma at elevated levels.

Because of these differences, the Supreme Court eliminated life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder, and severely limited it for kids charged with murder, ruling that only the “irreparably corrupt” can receive a juvenile life without parole sentence. And in 2016, in Henry Montgomery’s appeal, the court made that decision retroactive.

Montgomery is now one of the more than 2,100 “juvenile lifers” in America’s prisons waiting to plead his case.

Still, the sentence prevails, especially in Michigan — where we’ve all lived and either played sports or coached. While 19 states and the District of Columbia have formally eliminated juvenile life without parole, and while prosecutors in most states almost never seek it, district attorneys in Michigan, Louisiana and a few isolated pockets are leading the charge to keep kids behind bars. Forever.

Take Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. As of July of 2016 (pdf), Wayne County had more than 150 people with juvenile life without parole sentences — the second highest in the country. Ninety percent of those kids are black, even though black people make up just 39 percent of the population. The elected prosecutor, Kym Worthy, has pushed to maintain the original life sentence in nearly 40 percent of the juvenile life without parole cases even though the Supreme Court has said only the rare kid should qualify. Jessica Cooper, the elected prosecutor in nearby Oakland County, Mich., is asking for death behind bars in almost 90 percent of the proceedings.

During our recent Detroit listen-and-learn tour focused on juvenile justice, several of us heard moving stories about those juvenile lifers who have now been given a second chance. We met Edward Sanders, who at 17 was sentenced to life without parole for participating in a drive-by shooting even though he was not the shooter. His accomplishments behind bars are remarkable. He served on a Michigan committee to help improve relations between prison staff and inmates. He received his bachelor’s degree, took a paralegal course, and served as a resident jailhouse lawyer, helping other inmates with their pleadings. He even taught classes. And in July of this year, after more than 40 years in prison, he was resentenced and paroled.

But there are hundreds of people like Edward Sanders who are no longer a danger to society and have something to contribute. Like Sanders, they should be given an opportunity to show they have changed and earn their release.

When prosecutors like those in Michigan ask to maintain juvenile life without parole sentences, they are saying that people who received lengthy sentences as kids should not have the opportunity to plead their cases to a parole board even after serving decades for their crimes — no matter how changed or how successful they have been in classes or programs. That’s a startling claim to make about a kid who committed a crime before he or she could vote, order a drink, join the military or, for some, drive a car.

These prosecutors are simply refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate. That should change. They should let individuals convicted as children plead their cases to a parole board after spending decades in prison, exercising empathy instead of relying on overly harsh juvenile sentences. State legislators can also pass legislation to end juvenile life without parole. We place trust in our elected officials to follow the law and do the right thing, but they are failing us. We call on our elected leaders to stop betraying the public trust, and to end juvenile life without parole forever.

Stan Van Gundy is head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Tobias Harris and Anthony Tolliver are current NBA players for the Detroit Pistons. Anquan Boldin and DeAndre Levy are former NFL players for the Detroit Lions.
This article was published in partnership with The Root.

Washington’s Largest County Bans Solitary Confinement For Kids in Adult Jails

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Washington’s Largest County Bans Solitary Confinement For Kids in Adult Jails

Last week, councilmembers in Washington State’s largest county unanimously passed a bill that eliminates solitary confinement for youth detained in adult correctional facilities. In doing so, they joined a growing group of lawmakers across the country taking a stance against a practice that has disastrous effects on kids and teenagers tangled up in the criminal justice system.

The bill was introduced in the King County Council in November. It defines solitary confinement as “the placement of an incarcerated person in a locked room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons other than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys.” With the vote, juveniles in the county’s two adult facilities — located in Seattle and Kent — cannot be segregated unless there’s a safety concern that cannot be solved using a less repressive measure. Solitary can no longer be used as a form of punishment. The legislation’s sponsors cited the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Department of Justice, and the United Nations, all of which have reported that isolation impacts brain development and exacerbates mental health disorders. Isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, paranoia, and suicide, the bill states.

The bill also ensures that youth in the adult facilities receive educational programming in accordance with state school standards. Solitary confinement essentially prevents youth from participating in these types of programs.

Solitary confinement was already banned in King County’s juvenile detention center.

Neuroscientistsjuvenile justice advocates, and Supreme Court justices agree that young people shouldn’t be treated the same way as adult offenders. But Washington law stipulates that 16 and 17-year-olds must be prosecuted in the adult court system for specific crimes, including burglary, robbery, and murder. Prosecutors also have the power to request that a young person be moved from the juvenile system, which is supposed to be rehabilitative, to the more punitive adult one.

Youth who end up in King County’s adult facilities — 86 percent of whom were black in 2016 — are often thrown in solitary confinement for “protective custody” or disciplinary reasons. Many are detained pretrial, and therefore haven’t been found guilty of a crime. According to a federal class action lawsuit filed in October, some kids held at the King County Jail are housed in small, isolated, window-less cells for weeks or months on end with “no meaningful human interaction, little to no education or programming, no music or television, and very few reading materials.” They only receive “a few minutes of face-to-face instruction,” and their recreation excludes interaction with other people. Solitary confinement has been used to punish them for being too loud, talking back, or wearing the wrong clothes.

“It is my hope that this legislation marks a significant shift in the way we think about and administer justice, especially for minors, at King County,” said bill cosponsor Jeanne Kohl-Welles. “It is our responsibility to make sure all young people in detention have the access and opportunity they need to reach their full potential, such as educational programming required under state law.”

With their unanimous vote, councilmembers in King County joined the national movement to ban all solitary confinement for juveniles, whether they are detained in youth or adult facilities. The issue was thrust into the national spotlight in 2016, when former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal adult prisons. But most kids are detained in facilities run by individual states, which have their own laws and policies to dictate where youth are detained and how they are treated.

According to Jennifer Lutz, a staff attorney for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, it is extremely difficult to assess how many kids are in solitary nationwide. Jails, prisons, and youth detention centers use different terms to describe the practice, such as isolation and segregation, which makes it hard to collect and assess the most accurate numbers. What’s clear is that solitary confinement “has long been the default method of security and behavior control” for youth in the adult criminal system, Lutz told In Justice Today. Adult facilities are particularly ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with young people’s unique behavioral, developmental, and mental health needs. They see solitary confinement as a solution to a perceived problem, Lutz says.

“It’s inhumane,” she added. “Young people need to be engaged.”

But juvenile justice advocates who want to eliminate solitary are notching key victories at the state and local level. This year, Connecticut and Washington, D.C passed legislation to severely limit when isolation can be used. Similar legislation was introduced in Virginia, New Mexico, and Nevada. Local facilities in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Nebraska have also been sued for the practice. In September, the American Correctional Association, which sets national standards and certifies youth and adult facilities, announced possible changes to restrictive housing for youth. Under its proposed policy guidelines, “separation” would no longer be a disciplinary or punitive option.

For now, King County is one of the jurisdictions leading the way.

“There is a growing national consensus that placing juveniles is solitary confinement is both unconstitutional and inhumane,” Vanessa Hernandez, the Youth Policy Director for the ACLU of Washington, said of the recent county vote. “The ordinance sends a strong message that this practice should not occur in King County Detention facilities, and we applaud the council for showing strong leadership to protect children.”

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Civil Rights and the White Manel

Civil Rights and the White Manel

Memo to those who organize conferences, especially conferences on civil rights: your panels should include women and people of color. Bonus tip: when an invited panelist says that she can only participate in good conscience if the demography of the panel is adjusted, don’t disinvite herWe’re ready to flip the calendar to 2018; why are we still having this conversation? Diversity is too often invoked as an interest disembodied from policy, but there is a direct line between the diversity of legal discourse and the legal rules that such discourse produces. Yes, diversity is desirable for lots of moral reasons — diversity at the upper echelons of the legal profession remains a national embarrassment and, good god, the way academic panels get populated is straight out of the 1950s — but what gets lost is that diversity is also desirable because it produces good law.

It’s difficult to think of a better example of the relationship between diverse discourse and good policy than when talking about overzealous policing. Obviously — obviously — having a bunch of older white dudes monopolize the conversation suppresses the institutional response to the very outgroups whose communities experience the worst elements of modern policing. So, in 2017, after spending the last several years staring at an endless loop of footage documenting over-escalated police encounters involving people of color, those interested in “serious” policing discourse are attentive to diversity, right?

Apparently not. The Tenth Circuit just announced its annual Bench and Bar Conference, and the attendees include Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch. The Conference will include a panel on qualified immunity. For those who are unfamiliar with the significance of qualified immunity, it’s the asteroid that destroys police accountability. Some high profile exceptions over the past few years notwithstanding, force escalation is rarely prosecuted as a crime, and it almost never produces a criminal conviction. Ordinarily, rules of civil liability work in tandem with criminal punishment to produce behavioral incentives, but qualified immunity means that police officers do not have to pay damages for force escalation (including killings) unless they acted “unreasonably” in light of “clearly established law.” And whereas those constructs could theoretically preserve space for damages-based incentives to do some work, the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts have defined those terms in ways that make it really hard for claimants to win. Qualified immunity, then, is really at the center of how law mediates relationships between law enforcement and the outgroup communities — particularly communities of color — that they police.

University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong (who is nonwhite) is one of the country’s leading experts in qualified immunity, and happens to live and work around the proverbial corner from the Conference. (The Conference is in Colorado Springs.) The Tenth Circuit Conference organizers invited Professor Leong, who noticed that she was the only panelist who wasn’t a white man. She responded: “Perhaps I am mistaken, and I am glad to be corrected, but I appear to be both the only woman and the only person of color on this panel. I’m not willing to appear on a panel so lacking in demographic diversity, given that it’s 2018. Particularly not on a topic related to civil rights. I hope those in charge will add some diversity to this panel. Otherwise, I respectfully ask to be replaced.” Firm, polite, and spot on. (Professor Leong’s response is part of a growing trend in which invited participants refuse to participate in nondiverse panels.) Much to her credit, Magistrate Judge Suzanne Mitchell seemed to recognize the urgent importance of panel diversity, particularly on this subject: “I very much understand your position. I will try to contact you next week. We would very much like to have you participate.” Several days later, however, Judge Mitchell, having consulted with the Conference organizers, conveyed to Professor Leong that the “best route is to find another speaker to replace you.” Even if Professor Leong were eventually to be replaced by a woman or a person of color — an outcome that is completely speculative at this point — seventy-five percent of a civil rights panel will still be white men.

People should not be concerned about Professor Leong, who does not need to be featured on this panel to cement her status in the field. It’s something else that everyone should find deeply troubling. (Well, several things, but I’m going to set aside what white “manels” say about how uncritically the keepers of professional privilege reproduce it.) Whether Judge Mitchell is expressing her own views — which I doubt in light of her first email — or whether she is expressing the preferences of other Conference members, the message is clear enough: having a panel with a suitable demographic makeup was just too inconvenient. But diversity is not some accommodation for women, people of color, and other outgroups; it’s necessary for the Conference to do its job. If it wants inform its audience about qualified immunity — to have an informed discussion about the use of force in policing — then don’t have a panel that consists entirely of people who can’t identify with over-policed communities. Its decision is like convening an all-white-man panel on the effects of affirmative action in higher education, or on sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s a #metoo conference in a men’s locker room.

This is how institutional discrimination happens. There is no reason to think that any individual decision-maker harbors any discriminatory animus towards the excluded groups. The Tenth Circuit, however, is staging an event to educate its bar membership about the use of force by police and appears not to be including a single black person; and when fielding a reasonable request for more diversity, it could not be bothered. At least as of now, conference attendees will be treated to a panel that is bleached of outgroup perspectives. Those perspectives, in turn, are necessary to critically evaluate incumbent assumptions about what sorts of police responses are “reasonable,” and the way accepted policing models are actually experienced in communities whose input has been historically marginalized. There is a direct line between decisions like that made by the Tenth Circuit Conference organizers and the practices of modern law enforcement institutions. In Denver, where the Tenth Circuit is headquartered, the city has paid out $14.5 million in the last three years just to settle lawsuits against the police — many of which involve people of color.

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