Q&A: Pendulum Foundation Executive Director Mary Ellen Johnson

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The U.S. Supreme Court may soon rule on a pair of cases pertaining to the legality of  sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in state courts. According to how the Supreme Court rules, states could be forced to curtail LWOP sentences for all juveniles, or limit such sentences to older teens or those convicted of murder. Or the high court could allow everything to stay as it is.

An opinion on either or both cases could be handed down as early as April 20.  In the meantime, grassroots advocates of eliminating juvenile LWOP sentences continue to battle on the state level for changes.

In Colorado, that battle has long been over. Life without parole sentences juveniles ended in 2006 with passage of a law that mandates parole opportunities for any juvenile sentenced to more than 40 years. The law is not retroactive, so there are still 48 prisoners serving LWOP sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

The change came about in large part because of the efforts of the Pendulum Foundation, a nine-year-old organization dedicated to raising awareness about the circumstances of children in Colorado’s adult prisons, and its executive director, Mary Ellen Johnson. The foundation operates on about $100,000 a year, all of which comes from personal donations.

Pendulum’s lobbyist arm, Pendulum Juvenile Justice, is pushing for a judicial check on state prosecutors’ decisions to try certain youths as adults (an action commonly known as “direct file”).

We chatted with Johnson, who runs the foundation from her home, via e-mail about her experience with the LWOP reform and other issues facing juveniles who are in Colorado’s adult system.

JJ Today: Give us the day-to-day workings of Pendulum. Are you a one-woman show out there, or do you have staff? Volunteers?

Johnson: I am lucky to be able to walk downstairs to my basement office where I do much of The Pendulum Foundation work. While we used to have more traditional offices, much of my time is taken up with e-mail and phone calls, which can be completed anywhere. I generally drive to Denver at least twice a week [90 miles one way] for legislation and meetings with the board, legislators, supporters and for events.

Because so much of our work is virtual, we have a website manager who lives in North Carolina and a social media employee from Denver. We have volunteers, particularly those with loved ones serving life, and interns volunteering from as far away as Denmark. However, I do most of the day-to-day work.

I have strengths – passion, determination, tenacity, and with age, a certain wisdom – but I really admire those who are fundraising geniuses and superb grassroots organizers.  And I’m really lousy at Twitter, Facebook and the wonders of the Internet, which is why our social media man is so important!

JJ Today: What got you into this line of advocacy? How did youths in the adult system become an issue that you were passionate about?

Johnson: In 1992, a 15-year-old in our small mountain community killed his parents. For some reason I couldn’t get Jacob Ind, who was a peer of my then-freshman daughter’s, out of my mind.

While I had never been interested in child abuse or juvenile justice issues – too painful – I ended up working for Jacob’s defense as a private investigator. I was shocked and heartbroken when Jacob received a life without parole sentence. How could a child, who’d been physically, emotionally and sexually abused by his parents every day of his 15 years, be sentenced to a life of further abuse behind prison walls? After seeing the justice system up close and personal, I was extremely disillusioned. In my opinion, the only people who believe in this system are those who have never been involved in it. As [high-profile trial lawyer] Gerry Spence said, “Little people get little justice.”

So I had a choice: Walk away and know that nothing would change, or try to make a difference. Fortunately for me, The Pendulum Foundation asked me to work for them.  I’ve come to know many of the 48 Colorado juveniles serving life without parole, and believe they deserve better than to die in prison.

JJ Today: Who else in the state backs you up? Do you have partnerships with the ACLU or any other groups?

Johnson: We often partner with such groups as Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, CO Public Defenders, CO-Cure, Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance and sometimes ACLU. Nationally Human Rights Watch, National Juvenile Justice Network, and Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.

JJ Today: What advice would you give other grassroots advocates around the country? What tactics or ideas have worked best for Pendulum in terms of getting your points across?

Johnson: Persistence. Passion. Speaking from the heart. Media have helped the most. When we started, nobody was interested in this issue. The Department of Justice didn’t even know how many kids were serving life without parole. They thought maybe 150. Human Rights Watch and others have subsequently counted nearly 2,600. I had NO experience and no connections in advocacy. All I knew was that my friend was serving life in prison and so were a bunch of other kids. We talked often with local reporters and finally got some big series. National media, such as Rolling Stone and Frontline, followed, and continue to this day.

In the beginning, I considered all of those who disagreed with me or saw the world through a different prism – prosecutors, Department of Corrections people, some legislators – as the enemy. They aren’t. I believe that everyone is doing his or her best and genuinely believes in their position. How can I disregard the pain of a victim, the concerns of a prosecutor who has just left a brutal crime scene, or the fears of a corrections officer who daily deals with violent or mentally disturbed individuals?

If we search deeply enough we can find areas of agreement. While I used to self-righteously  attack others because they HAD to be wrong, I’ve learned that it’s most effective, as well as most spiritually empowering for all concerned, to appeal to our “better angels.” Good intentions, to focus on the prize – in our case second chances for incarcerated youth – and trusting that all works out as it should, is the only way I can continue, like Sisyphus, rolling that boulder up that mountain. 

JJ Today: You have probably paid more attention to juvenile LWOP sentences in Colorado than any one person. Is there a common thread through all of them? Is there a common denominator as far as which cases the prosecutors try and get LWOP sentences?

Johnson: There’s a very familiar pattern. Kids who commit violent crimes are rare and garner a lot of publicity. No prosecutor ever lost an election by being tough on crime. We can track the pattern: Newspapers start screaming about gang violence, and when an inner-city killing occurs involving a teen, prosecutors make headlines by seeking the toughest penalty. Most of these kids get harsher sentences than their adult counterparts. One of our kids was the first case a new D.A. personally prosecuted. Making your political bones off of a kid – That’s when I get angry and have to back up and take a deep breath and try to look at the situation in a less judgmental light.

[Note: That new district attorney was Bill Ritter (D), now Governor of Colorado.]

We have two kids serving life for killing an abusive parent. These kids cried out for help and were ignored. One, Jacob Ind, was convicted during the time of the Menendez brothers when the public was decrying the “abuse excuse.” The other, Nathan Ybanez, was convicted right after Columbine.

You think a prosecutor is going to have the political courage to consider the hell these two boys lived as a mitigating factor and recommend mercy? No other Colorado kids have gotten LWOP for killing a parent. Now you explain to me why Nathan and Jacob? Where is the justice in that?

JJ Today: How old are the youngest and oldest people serving LWOP sentences in Colorado for juvenile crimes?

Johnson: The youngest is probably early twenties; oldest is late thirties. We have some who are serving life with parole who will never be paroled. One went in at 16 and has been behind bars 30 years. He was denied parole in 1999 and if again denied this year plans to commit suicide.

 

JJ Today: Pendulum helped sell Gov. Bill Ritter on the idea of a juvenile clemency board, which would review sentences handed down to juveniles if a juvenile chose to appeal for clemency. How many cases has that board reviewed and have any sentences been changed by the board?

Johnson: We don’t know how many cases have been reviewed. That’s a secret. Everything the board does is secret. We offered suggestions, ideas and tried to work with them for a couple of years to implement a board that, if not neutral, was not so heavily weighted toward punishment. (The chairman of the juvenile clemency board is not only a district attorney, she prosecuted some of the kids who theoretically would be asking her for mercy.) No sentences have been commuted, not the sentence of a young man with a perfect prison record – nearly impossible – or another who has served 18 years of a life sentence for a HIT AND RUN. 

I have been extremely disillusioned by the juvenile clemency board. I believed it was good faith effort to try to rectify the imbalances for some of our young men and women. That hasn’t been the case. But I’ve also learned if one door slams in your face rather than stand there knocking piteously for someone to please, please open it, you just go to another door. Under our [lobbyist arm], we think we’ll get direct file largely overturned this year with a veto-proof majority (Ritter has said he’ll veto any juvenile justice measures), and may do a referred measure that would allow any incarcerated juvenile over the age of 30 to have a chance at community corrections. If not this year, we may do legislation in 2011 and will definitely do a ballot initiative in 2012. We’re not going away, and we’re not stopping until we’re successful.

JJ Today: Some groups that focus on youth in adult prisons come from the perspective that NO juvenile should be tried in adult court. Do you subscribe to that theory, or do you feel that adult court and prison is appropriate in some cases?

Johnson: I am a fan of blended sentences – where a kid can get an adult sentence which will be suspended if he or she successfully completes time in some place like Colorado’s Youth Offender System. Twenty years ago Colorado had a therapeutic treatment center where kids who committed serious crimes, even killing, received help and then went on to become productive, law-abiding adults. Texas still has such a facility: Giddings State School. Now we are interested in retribution rather than redemption, so we simply incarcerate.