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Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Child Offender’s Encounter with Blind Justice

Crushed Against the Law: A Child Offender’s Encounter with Blind Justice by Robert Saleem Holbrook “Trust me,” said my attorney confidently, “you’re young with no juvenile detention record, the judge and district attorney will take that into consideration. The death penalty or life without parole is not an option for a juvenile ‘lookout’ to a homicide. You’ll be all right.” Those were my attorney’s words a couple hours before I was sentenced to life without parole for being a ‘lookout’ to a drug-related homicide. I stood there and listened as the judge dispassionately stated that he was not bound by law to take into consideration my age and immaturity in determining the sentence imposed upon me. I honestly believe I would have encountered more sympathy from a hungry pack of tigers than from the judge that sentenced me to LWOP for a crime I participated in, unknowingly at that, at the age of 16. To be straight, I’ve encountered more sympathy from mass murders, rapists and vicious psychopaths in the 18 years I’ve been imprisoned than a child offender will encounter in a Pennsylvania courtroom when charged as an “adult” for committing or participating in a homicide. He or she could not encounter a more ruthless predator than the prosecutor and judge who will stand there and argue with a straight face that the child standing in front of them is not a child but rather an “adult offender” trapped in a child’s body. Before they will even come to develop their sense of humanity and individuality a child offender will stand there and listen, vainly attempting to comprehend, as their humanity and identity as an adolescent is stripped away in a courtroom dedicated to upholding the law and preserving the rights of all people. Children are the most vulnerable segment of any population because their lives and rights are entrusted to the society they belong to. They have no voice for themselves; therefore the law – at least in theory – entrusts their well being to society. However, as it stands now, an abandoned animal garners more sympathy than a child offender charged and sentenced as an adult for participating in or committing a homicide. Does that statement sound extreme? Consider this: in the United States, there are over 2,300 prisoners serving LWOP for participating in or committing a homicide as child offenders. In the rest of the world, there are a total of ZERO. Consider the absurdity of that. A child offender who makes a terrible decision as a youth in the United States would receive a more balanced sense of justice and leniency in countries such as China, Libya, Cuba, and Mexico that they would at home. Countries that habitually violate and disregard human rights extend more protection to their child offenders than the United States which proclaims itself a defender of human rights. Sentencing a child offender to LWOP is a violation of a child’s human rights. No matter what legal language the state employs under the guise of protecting society, a child does not cease being a child despite a terrible decision he/she makes that runs afoul of the law. And what type of society needs protection from its own children? A human right is defined as a basic fundamental right that is inherent. It is not bestowed by the state, it is a universal right that is to be protected by the state and, in extension, by the international community of nations. The United Nation’s Conventional on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Treaty has been signed and ratified by every nation in the world with the exception of the United States and Somalia.# The CRC establishes fundamental rights of children that cannot be infringed upon by the states. The CRC acknowledges the special right of children that reflect their unique vulnerabilities, needs and the affirmative responsibility of governments to protect them. Recognizing a need to address children that run afoul of the law and the need to protect child offenders from draconian or grossly disproportionate sentences, the CRC prohibits sentences that eliminate the ability of child offenders to evolve into better adults and one day re-enter society. Article 37(a) states: Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by person under eighteen years of age. Since the United States has not ratified this treaty this prohibition lands on deaf ears in courtrooms around the United States. Child offenders and their parents still want to believe in vain that the state will develop a conscience and recognize and take into consideration the age and immaturity of their children in the court of law. That ain’t going to happen. Like a lamb before the slaughter they will stand in front of a judge’s bench and have not only their human rights stripped but also their freedom and ability to one day develop into a reformed adult capable of entering society. Just attempt to imagine what it feels like to be a 34 year old man condemned to die in prison for a terrible decision, made under duress, when you were a child? Then being denied the ability to ever demonstrate that the person you are at 34 is not the child you were at 16. A life under a cloud of utter hopelessness perpetually drifts over the head of a prisoner serving LWOP for a crime he committed or participated in as a child offender. He is forever condemned to his past despite the accomplishments and maturity he has developed as an adult. It is no wonder then that the U.N.’s Committee on Torture stated in 2005 that LWOP for child offenders could constitute a violation of the international prohibition against cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. Picture the absurdity and mental anguish of a child offender sentenced to LWOP and denied the opportunity of parole release for being a “lookout” to a homicide in Pennsylvania watching Charles Manson, a psychopathic mass murderer in California, being granted the ability to appear in front of a parole board every four years to plead his case for release. Consider the absurdity of Dennis Radar, the Kansas BTK serial killer, serving multiple life sentences, being eligible for a parole hearing in forty years or 63-year old Mr. Hilton, who murdered and beheaded a female hiker in Georgia, sentenced to life in prison and who will be eligible for parole in thirty years. How about Darrel Mack who sliced his wife’s throat – thereby killing her – to avoid a divorce settlement and then shot the judge that handled the divorce? He will be eligible for parole in 36 years. And let’s not forget Pennsylvania’s own Theodore Solano, a convicted pedophile, who in 1993 kidnapped and murdered 18 year old Olga Shugar. Solano pled guilty to a deal offered by the state prosecutor’s office that sentenced him to 17-40 years in prison. This is the same state prosecutor’s office that insisted on pursuing the death sentence of LWOP in my situation for being a 16 year old “lookout.” In addition to all of these men being mass murderers, the other thing they have in common is that all of them will have the opportunity to appear before a parole board and plead their rehabilitation while I will never have that opportunity despite having murdered no one. Does it sound wrong that men who murdered should have the opportunity for parole while child offenders who did not murder should be denied the opportunity for parole. Defenders of LWOP would argue that the above examples are the exception not the norm; however, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, they are wrong. Human Rights Watch has documented that in eleven out of the seventeen years between 1985 and 2001, child offenders convicted of murder were more likely to enter prison with LWOP than adult murder offenders. How could the state deal more harshly with child offenders, who as children are not even entrusted with the responsibilities and privileges granted adults, than adult offenders? In what other arena are children held to a more stringent standard of responsibility than adults? A child offender charged as an adult has the absurd burden of proving he or she should be held to the accountability of a minor instead of an adult. Let’s delve deeper into that and further consider its absurdity. Let’s reverse the situation. Suppose an adult throws a tantrum because he or she doesn’t get their way and runs amok destroying property and striking individuals in their presence, an act which results in their arrest for vandalizing and destroying property, disturbing the peace and aggravated assault. Because the adult “acted like a child” and should have “known better,” should he or she be charged as a “child offender” and be subjected to the juvenile justice system for throwing a tantrum? Should he or she be referred to as a delinquent instead of a criminal? If an adult offender attempted to use this reasoning to excuse their behavior they would be laughed out of the courtroom. Yet the same absurd scenario plays itself out in reverse in countless courtrooms across the United States for child offenders charged and sentenced as adults who are held to the responsibility and maturity level of adults because of poor decisions they made as children. Yet, in their case, the consequences are real and no one is laughing. Justice is about punishment, but proportional punishment and not a vengeance-driven sense of justice that is blind to a child offender. Just as it is absurd to hold a child offender to the same level of responsibility and decision-making as adults, it would also be absurd to advocate that child offenders that commit homicide or participate in a homicide be given a slap on the wrist and be sent home. They should be punished in a manner that addresses the seriousness of their offense while recognizing they are children and their lives should not be extinguished and sacrificed at the altar of vengeance. When the law preys on its child offenders – on children it is obligated to protect – it is no better than the criminal predators that prey on children in society, children they are obliged morally to protect. The state’s blind justice when it comes to sentencing child offenders to LWOP, which deliberately ignores their age and immaturity, not only reveals a travesty of justice in the nation’s treatment of its child offenders but also exposes the absurdity of vengeance-driven justice at the expense of the human rights of children crushed against the law in our nation’s courtrooms. God save the children, for surely the law won’t. Robert L. Holbrook #BL-5140 SCI Greene 175 Progress Drive Waynesburg, PA 15370 August 4, 2008

Report Shows Juvenile Lifers Suffering in Solitary Confinement

New Report Shows Juvenile Lifers Suffering in Solitary Confinement January 3, 2012 By Jean Casella and James Ridgeway 5 Comments The United States is the only national in the world that doles out life sentences for crimes committed while the offender was below the age of 18. According to a report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch, “approximately 2,570 youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in adult US prisons,” and as inmates they ”experience conditions that violate fundamental human rights.” The report “draws on six years of research, and interviews and correspondence with correctional officials and hundreds of youth offenders serving life without parole,” and presages the Supreme Court’s upcoming review of juvenile LWOP. “Youth offenders are serving life without parole sentences in 38 states and in federal prisons,” HRW reports. “Prison policies that channel resources to inmates who are expected to be released often result in denying youth serving life without parole opportunities for education, development, and rehabilitation.” Among the report’s shocking findings is the fact that “nearly every youth offender serving life without parole reported physical violence or sexual abuse by other inmates or corrections officers.” Unsurprisingly, “Youth offenders commonly reported having thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness, or depression. Isolation was frequently compounded by solitary confinement. In the past five years, at least three youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in the United States have committed suicide.” In its section on “Protective and Punitive Isolation,” the report finds that “Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general prison population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of inmates, such as alleged gang members. Youth offenders frequently described their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal.” It continues: “Life in long-term isolation usually involves segregating inmates for 23 or more hours a day in their cells. Offenders contacted by Human Rights Watch described the devastating loneliness of spending their days alone, without any human contact, except for when a guard passes them a food tray through a slot in the door, or when guards touch their wrists when handcuffing them through the same slot before taking them to the exercise room or for a shower once a week. Youth had the same experience and feelings whether they had been isolated to protect or to punish them.” The report’s findings on the use of solitary confinement on juvenile lifers (with corresponding footnotes) appears below. You can also read the full report–which includes a series of recommendations to the president, Congress, corrections officials, and judges–online or as a PDF. Protection that Harms A growing consensus views protective isolation as acceptable only as a last resort and interim measure.[56] Yet isolation is commonly used by prison officials as a quick solution to protection challenges—including the challenge of keeping a young person safe in a prison full of adults. Youth offenders reported to Human Rights Watch that they sometimes sought out protective custody to avoid harm. Occasionally, prison authorities recognize the problems a youth offender is having and take corrective measures. Jeffrey W., who entered prison at age 17, wrote: At the beginning, the focus was on surviving…. Naturally, I was the target of sexual predators and had to fight off a couple rape attempts…. These were hardened, streetwise convicts who had been in prison 10, 15, 20, 30 years and I was a na├»ve 18-year-old who knew nothing about prison life…. Because of the rape attempts on me … state prison officials said I should have been classified as needing protection. I was soon sent to the state’s protection unit. I stayed there for seven years until I was returned to the general population—older, wiser, and capable of surviving general population.Unfortunately, segregation can exacerbate the lack of opportunities for programs described in more detail later in this report: Right now I’m not receiving no schooling or counseling due to being in ASU Administrative Segretion Unit. They have no schooling for me or etc. They are way out of conduct here. I been asking to receive some GED work but I haven’t receive no responce. I wish to recieve schooling. I learn how to read and write in prison and I want to be successful. I might get out one day.Prolonged periods of isolation can be devastating for anyone, but are especially devastating for young offenders.] Punishment with a Permanent Impact Youth offenders are often placed in long-term isolation or super-maximum security confinement as a disciplinary sanction. Dennis Burbank, an administrative officer at Colorado State Penitentiary, offered an explanation for why youth offenders serving life without parole often end up confined in long-term isolation: One factor is age—when you come in at a young age with life without, there’s not a whole lot of light at the end of the tunnel. Also, it’s kind of a guy thing: the young ones come in with a lot of fear, anxiety, paranoia, and they want to make a name for themselves—so they have a tendency to act out They say [to themselves] ‘I’ve got to impress everyone with what a bad-ass I am.’Long-term isolation can have lasting negative effects on inmates. Troy L. came to prison at age 16 after committing first degree murder at the age of 15. He spent “something like 300 days in an isolation cell” when he was awaiting trial and had been transferred to isolation several times since for “different reasons.” Troy said he had spent so much time in isolation that he was unable to feel comfortable relating to and living around other people, especially now that he was housed in the general population barracks: If you just see what these barracks are like, they got us piled in there like some cockroaches. And I’ve spent so much time over the years … in just cells and lockdown for different reasons. And it’s hard for me to deal with just having so many people around. So much—I can’t think—you know what I mean? Human Rights Watch has systematically documented and advocated against the human rights violations inherent in the incarceration of individuals in super-maximum security prisons throughout the United States.] Segregated living also has long-term psychological implications.