This morning marked the start of the 13th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference presented by the Center for Children, Law and Policy at the University of Houston Law Center and the Southwest Regional Juvenile Defender Center. Nearly 100 attorneys from all across the country involved with and interested in juvenile justice have come to participate in the conference. Kicking off the two-day conference was the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) director for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Mr. Bart Lubow, who reviewed the Casey Foundation’s JDAI program in Harris County and around the nation. Gwyneth Rost, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, followed Mr. Lubow with a presentation on linguistics and juvenile defense, focusing on language development and its effect on children and adolescents. After lunch, Professor Ellen Marrus, Ms. Chris Phillis, Director of the Maricopa County Public Advocate, and Ms. Pamela Vickrey of the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, will lead a session on the National Juvenile Defender Center’s Juvenile Training Immersion Program, Multi-Systemic Advocacy: Family, School, and State Agencies. Next, Professor Malikah Marrus from Missouri State University will present on adolescent development and juvenile defense. Mid-afternoon presentations involve breakout sessions where conference participants will be able to choose between one of three discussions including a continuation of the NJDC’s Juvenile Training Immersion Program, Best Practices for Moving out of Solitary and Removing Shackles, and Linguistics and Juvenile Defense. Honorable Judge Angela Ellis of the 315th Juvenile District Court in Harris County and Ms. Anna Stool of the Law Offices of Anna Stool will finish up day one with a discussion of the Ethics of Working with Crossover Youth.
From Erik Eckholm at the New York Times:
In decisions widely hailed as milestones, the United States Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 acted to curtail the use of mandatory life sentences for juveniles, accepting the argument that children, even those who are convicted of murder, are less culpable than adults and usually deserve a chance at redemption.
But most states have taken half measures, at best, to carry out the rulings, which could affect more than 2,000 current inmates and countless more in years to come, according to many youth advocates and legal experts.
“States are going through the motions of compliance,” said Cara H. Drinan, an associate professor of law at the Catholic University of America, “but in an anemic or hyper-technical way that flouts the spirit of the decisions.”
Lawsuits now before Florida’s highest court are among many across the country that demand more robust changes in juvenile justice. One of the Florida suits accuses the state of skirting the ban on life without parole in nonhomicide cases by meting out sentences so staggering that they amount to the same thing.
Other suits, such as one argued last week before the Illinois Supreme Court, ask for new sentencing hearings, at least, for inmates who received automatic life terms for murder before 2012 — a retroactive application that several states have resisted.
The plaintiff in one of the Florida lawsuits, Shimeek Gridine, was 14 when he and a 12-year-old partner made a clumsy attempt to rob a man in 2009 here in Jacksonville. As the disbelieving victim turned away, Shimeek fired a shotgun, pelting the side of the man’s head and shoulder.
The man was not seriously wounded, but Shimeek was prosecuted as an adult. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery, hoping for leniency as a young offender with no record of violence. The judge called his conduct “heinous” and sentenced him to 70 years without parole.
Under Florida law, he cannot be released until he turns 77, at least, several years beyond the life expectancy for a black man his age, noted his public defender, who called the sentence “de facto life without parole” in an appeal to Florida’s high court.
“They sentenced him to death, that’s how I see it,” Shimeek’s grandmother Wonona Graham said.
The Supreme Court decisions built on a 2005 ruling that banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders as cruel and unusual punishment, stating that offenders younger than 18 must be treated differently from adults.
The 2010 decision, Graham v. Florida, forbade sentences of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of murder and said offenders must be offered a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” The ruling applied to those who had been previously sentenced.
Cases like Shimeek’s aim to show that sentences of 70 years, 90 years or more violate that decision. Florida’s defense was that Shimeek’s sentence was not literally “life without parole” and that the life span of a young inmate could not be predicted.
Probably no more than 200 prisoners were affected nationally by the 2010 decision, and they were concentrated in Florida. So far, of 115 inmates in the state who had been sentenced to life for nonhomicide convictions, 75 have had new hearings, according to the Youth Defense Institute at the Barry University School of Law in Orlando. In 30 cases, the new sentences have been for 50 years or more. One inmate who had been convicted of gun robbery and rape has received consecutive sentences totaling 170 years.
In its 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court declared that juveniles convicted of murder may not automatically be given life sentences. Life terms remain a possibility, but judges and juries must tailor the punishment to individual circumstances and consider mitigating factors.
The Supreme Court did not make it clear whether the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, and state courts have been divided, suggesting that this issue, as well as the question of de facto life sentences, may eventually return to the Supreme Court.
Advocates for victims have argued strongly against revisiting pre-2012 murder sentences or holding parole hearings for the convicts, saying it would inflict new suffering on the victims’ families.
Pennsylvania has the most inmates serving automatic life sentences for murders committed when they were juveniles: more than 450, according to the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. In October, the State Supreme Court found that the Miller ruling did not apply to these prior murder convictions, creating what the law center, a private advocacy group, called an “appallingly unjust situation” with radically different punishments depending on the timing of the trial.
Likewise, courts in Louisiana, with about 230 inmates serving mandatory life sentences for juvenile murders, refused to make the law retroactive. In Florida, with 198 such inmates, the issue is under consideration by the State Supreme Court, and on Wednesday it was argued before the top court of Illinois, where 100 inmates could be affected.
Misgivings about the federal Supreme Court decisions and efforts to restrict their application have come from some victim groups and legal scholars around the country.
“The Supreme Court has seriously overgeneralized about under-18 offenders,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative group in Sacramento, Calif. “There are some under 18 who are thoroughly incorrigible criminals.”
Some legal experts who are otherwise sympathetic have suggested that the Supreme Court overreached, with decisions that “represent a dramatic judicial challenge to legislative authority,” according to a new article in the Missouri Law Review by Frank O. Bowman III of the University of Missouri School of Law.
Among the handful of states with large numbers of juvenile offenders serving life terms, California is singled out by advocates for acting in the spirit of the Supreme Court rules.
“California has led the way in scaling back some of the extreme sentencing policies it imposed on children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, the director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which has campaigned against juvenile life sentences and called on states to reconsider mandatory terms dispensed before the Miller ruling. Too many states, she said, are “reacting with knee-jerk, narrow efforts at compliance.”
California is allowing juvenile offenders who were condemned to life without parole to seek a resentencing hearing. The State Supreme Court also addressed the issue of de facto life sentences, voiding a 110-year sentence that had been imposed for attempted murder.
Whether they alter past sentences or not, some states have adapted by imposing minimum mandatory terms for juvenile murderers of 25 or 35 years before parole can even be considered — far more flexible than mandatory life, but an approach that some experts say still fails to consider individual circumstances.
As Ms. Drinan of Catholic University wrote in a coming article in the Washington University Law Review, largely ignored is the mandate to offer young inmates a chance to “demonstrate growth and maturity,” raising their chances of eventual release.
To give young offenders a real chance to mature and prepare for life outside prison, Ms. Drinan said, “states must overhaul juvenile incarceration altogether,” rather than letting them languish for decades in adult prisons.
Shimeek Gridine, meanwhile, is pursuing a high school equivalency diploma in prison while awaiting a decision by the Florida Supreme Court that could alter his bleak prospects.
He has a supportive family: A dozen relatives, including his mother and grandparents and several aunts and uncles, testified at his sentencing in 2010, urging clemency for a child who played Pop Warner football and talked of becoming a merchant seaman, like his grandfather.
But the judge said the fact that Shimeek had a good family, and decent grades, only underscored that the boy knew right from wrong, and he issued a sentence 30 years longer than even the prosecution had asked for.
Now Florida’s top court is pondering whether his sentence violates the federal Constitution.
“A 70-year sentence imposed upon a 14-year-old is just as cruel and unusual as a sentence of life without parole,” Shimeek’s public defender, Gail Anderson, argued before the Florida court in September. “Mr. Gridine will most likely die in prison.”
The recent cases about juvenile law handed down by the United States Supreme Court were meant to help convicted juveniles. While those cases certainly have, they have not helped all convicted juveniles. The decisions mandating that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole were not deemed retroactive. In fact, the states are split on this issue. This means that not all convicted juveniles will see the light of day outside prison walls again. What was the intent of the Supreme Court? Will all convicted juveniles be treated equally under those cases? These questions and many more are what we are left with and are what the lower courts must decide. It is our hope that when they do make these decisions, they keep in mind that children are different.
Cutting costs and saving money has become a top priority in many industries across the country, pushing effectiveness, performance, and successful outcomes lower and lower down the totem pole. With budgetary strains affecting states across the country, governments are putting more faith in privatization as a way to save money. One industry that has experienced enormous controversy over privatization efforts is the juvenile justice system. Despite an extensive record full of allegations regarding physical and sexual abuse, poor facility conditions, and inadequate programming that has come to characterize the for-profit private juvenile prison industry, nearly 40% of juvenile delinquents in the United States today are housed in private institutions.
The name James Slattery has become associated with private prisons, but for all the wrong reasons. A one-time New York City hotelier, Slattery is not a newcomer to the prison scene. From establishing “welfare hotels” in the 1980s to halfway houses for federal prisoners in the 1990s, Slattery’s profit making ventures have consistently been controversial, both in nature and performance. Notwithstanding the repugnant track record his previous enterprises hold, Slattery, now head of Youth Services International (YSI), has contracts with 16 states and has been entrusted with the responsibility of supervising over 40,000 juveniles over the past 20 years. Perhaps one of the most notorious news pieces associated with Slattery’s name occurred at a boot camp in Texas operated by one of his previous companies, Correctional Services Corporation. In 2001, a juvenile came down with pneumonia and begged guards to see a doctor because he couldn’t breathe. Instead of complying with his request, staff accused the juvenile of faking it and forced him to do pushups in his own vomit. Nine days later, the juvenile died due to medical neglect.
YSI’s private for-profit juvenile prisons embody a horrific example of what happens when the government punts social services to private entities with little subsequent oversight. Driven by their bottom line focus, Slattery’s facilities pay dismal wages to employees resulting in high staff turnover rates and leaving inexperienced and poorly trained guards left to supervise juvenile populations. The resulting conditions are dangerous and unsatisfactory; juveniles are subject to extensive physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and deprivation, many times being forced to live in abysmal conditions with substandard basic necessities. “When oversight is not as strong as it can be, companies are only going to be incentivized to do what the government that’s paying them makes them do. And so in these cases if the oversight is lacking, if there is not constant monitoring, I think there is an incentive to cut costs and services.”
Even though the juvenile justice system was created with rehabilitative efforts in mind in an attempt to help youth become productive, law-abiding adults, “[p]rivate for-profit prisons squarely undermine good juvenile justice practices because these companies’ business models predicate high incarceration and recidivism rates for kids so that they can continue to fill beds in their facilities. This might be the saddest profit motive ever.” Once states agree to these long-term contracts, they are obligated to fill the prison beds within these private facilities or else face penalties and pay for all unused, empty beds. As a for-profit institution, YSI prisons benefit from keeping more people locked up. In the words of Juvenile Judge Ron Alvarez, these institutions are like a third world country that is controlled by some type of evil power. YSI’s juvenile facilities have violated and continue to violate numerous federal and state guidelines by frequently and unnecessarily using abusive treatments, the unavailability and inadequacy of programs and basic necessities such as food, and extremely violent confrontations between guards and youth, with reports showing that guards slap and choke juveniles even to the point of fracturing youth’s bones at times.
“Over the past quarter century, Slattery’s for-profit prison enterprises have run afoul of the Justice Department and authorities in New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas for alleged offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts.” Despite the allegations against YSI’s facilities, they are able to continue acquiring contracts through practices such as poor and sometimes even falsified documentation, neglecting to document serious events and scaring youth into not reporting incidents. “The paperwork looked great, because someone was going around and spending overtime just to make sure that paperwork was correct. If there was something missing, they would just forge it”, according to former supervisor for a YSI juvenile detention center, Angela Phillips. Slattery is also able to avoid repercussion by pulling out of contracts before the government has a chance to take action. Furthermore, a complete lack of governmental interest allows Slattery’s abusive institutions to remain viable placement for juvenile offenders. Perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of this unsettling truth can be seen in youth facilities in Florida, where 100% of the state’s juveniles are housed in private prisons. A Florida YSI facility with a history of numerous abuse allegations, had eight confirmed cases of child abuse in one year, which were all well documented. In the same year, 96% of the staff left this facility. Remarkably, the Department of Justice not only reinstated YSI’s contract, but also fired the monitor who reported the cases of abuse. According to a former DOJ executive staffer, “They [FL] don’t want the providers to look bad, because they don’t have anyone else to provide this service. . . Bottom line, the state of Florida doesn’t want responsibility for these kids.” Furthermore, Slattery has a tendency of acquiring powerful confederates within the government by making contributions to state candidates and committees. Over the past 15 years, Slattery, his wife, and other YSI executives have donated in excess of $400,000 to Florida politicians, representing more than the combined donations of both Office Depot and Darden Restaurants, two of Florida’s largest Fortune 500 companies.
Marketing their institutions as able to provide benefits to taxpayers and produce better outcomes at lower costs than state run facilities, YSI’s claims have been severely undermined by an overabundance of evidence. Generating some of the worst reoffending rates in the nation, more than 40% of juveniles housed in a YSI facility in Florida were rearrested and convicted of another crime within a year of their release in comparison to only 25% in New York, a state that has never utilized private prison facilities, within the same timeframe. In an effort to cut costs, states that have turned to private for-profit prisons to house some of their most troubled youth are washing their hands of the responsibility to care for juvenile populations that could substantially benefit from rehabilitative efforts, yet they are essentially being left in the care of a man tainted with a horrific history who is focused solely on the bottom line. “Quality assurance is looking at contract adherence, whether they’re meeting the general terms of the contract, not the goals of the rehabilitation of the youth.”
Although the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice recently announced they wouldn’t be renewing their contract with YSI for the facility that holds the title of having the highest rate of youth alleging sexual assaults in the country, with upwards of 30% alleging inappropriate sexual contact with staff, a spokesman for the Department claimed the decision was driven by the need to cut costs rather than due to the allegations of rampant sexual misconduct. With little governmental interest or oversight in these private facilities, even after allegations of abuse and claims of inadequate programming and subpar conditions surface, Slattery, YSI, and other private juvenile institutions will have free reign to do as they please to our juvenile populations. The overarching motives supporting the creation of a separate juvenile justice system are based on a juvenile’s unique salvageability, as their traits and characteristics are more malleable and transitory in nature and therefore are more susceptible to rehabilitative efforts than their adult counterparts. With few rehabilitative programs in place in these private prisons and little to look forward to in terms of available opportunities upon release (especially without support and guidance), state’s current reliance on private prisons to “rehabilitate” our country’s juvenile populations is essentially ensuring that a large part of those released will return to some sort of detention down the road, whether it be juvenile or adult prison. If the government can’t even show interest in providing programs, services, and adequate basic necessities to a population that has been shown to possess the unique ability to learn and grow from their past behaviors and mistakes, the possibility of a bright future for anyone, juveniles and society as a whole included, is bleak and dismal. Studies have shown that youth incarceration doesn’t reduce recidivism rates, doesn’t benefit public safety, and exposes youth in confinement to further abuse and violence. Exhibiting almost an addictive approach towards incarceration, it seems as if the United States has moved from an attitude based on problem solving towards a more repressive philosophy that essentially serves to destroy a promising and hopeful juvenile population. If there’s any hope for a brighter future for anyone involved, there needs to be a collective understanding that oppressive incarceration, especially in abusive for-profit private prisons, is not the answer.