Q&A: Stopping Life without Parole

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Johnson: “In the beginning, I considered all of those who disagreed with me … as the enemy.”

With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to issue a ruling on the legality of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in state courts, advocates continue to battle on the state level to change or eliminate the practice.

In Colorado, the battle is over: Sentences of life without parole for juveniles ended in 2006 with passage of a law that mandates parole opportunities for any juvenile sentenced to more than 40 years.

The change came about largely through the efforts of the Pendulum Foundation (www.pendulumfoundation.com), which strives to raise awareness about the circumstances of children in Colorado’s adult prisons. The nine-year-old foundation operates on about $100,000 a year, all 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.

Youth Today conversed with foundation Executive Director Mary Ellen Johnson via e-mail about her experience with LWOP reform and other issues facing juveniles in Colorado’s adult system. Excerpts are below. A more complete version is at JJ Today,  http://www.youthtoday.org/talk/comments.cfm?blog_id=329.

Q: Are you a one-woman show out there, or do you have staff?

A: 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.

Q: What got you into this line of advocacy?

A: 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.

Fortunately for me, the Pendulum Foundation asked me to work for them.

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

A: Persistence. Passion. Speaking from the heart.

Media have helped the most. When we started, nobody was interested in this issue. 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.”

Q: 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?

A: 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. 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.

Q: 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?

A: We don’t know how many cases have been reviewed. 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. 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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. Now we are interested in retribution rather than redemption, so we simply incarcerate.