October 29, 2010
A recent article by Elizabeth Renter at Change.org profiles 16-year-old William Murphy who is facing a stiff sentence for killing his 15-year-old friend, Otilio Rubio. The problem is that Murphy, who is facing 50 years in prison didn’t actually kill Rubio and no one is claiming that he did.
One night Murphy and Rubio, along with another friend, decided to break into the home of Jose Oyola-Aponte. Oyola-Aponte heard his bedroom window break and defended himself by firing his .40 caliber Glock at the intruders. One bullet hit Murphy in the stomach and another hit Rubio in the head. Rubio died and because Murphy was involved in the commission of a felony at the time of the death, he was charged with murder under the felony murder rule.
There are many examples of juveniles who are charged under felony murder statutes across the United States. Shortly after the 1999 Columbine massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado a young man named Nathan Ybanez killed his mother after a dispute in their home. Ybanez’s friend Erik Jensen was there and tried to help Ybanez run away after the incident. Both boys were charged with murder and eventually sentenced as adults to life without parole.
The point is that this kind of circumstantial treatment of juveniles is common and juveniles charged as adults tend to suffer disproportionate sentences to adults as a result of their crimes. In fact, a recent study found that kids who kill their parents will probably be sentenced to double the time that parents who kill their kids would be. According to the study conducted by Pendulum Juvenile Justice, kids who kill their parents are likely to receive a sentence upwards of 50 years. By contrast, parents who kill their kids receive an average sentence of just under 23 years.
The fact is that felony murder is just one more tool that prosecutors use to unfairly punish children and feed the corrections system. Whether you believe that kids should be held responsible for their crimes as adults or not, it is undeniable that the way kids are punished is beyond unfair and costs taxpayers millions of dollars every year. A recent Supreme Court decision found that life sentences for kids who did not commit murder was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court did not distinguish between first degree murder, manslaughter and felony murder, but they should have.
Felony murder isn’t murder at all and kids like Erik Jensen and William Murphy, while they deserve to be punished, don’t deserve to serve 50 years to life in prison for the mistakes they made.
October 25, 2010
A recent story posted at Solitary Watch details the story of George. George is a 15-year-old jail inmate accused of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Texas. George has been found competent to stand trial as an adult so he’s being held in an adult facility, but because he’s a child he’s being held there “for his protection” in 23-hour a day lock down.
You might think “well that’s a good thing, Texas is protecting its kids in jail which, as criminals, is far more than they deserve.” Okay. Let’s start from the beginning. George is accused of a crime. How do we know that he committed a crime? The simple answer is that we don’t. That’s the reason we have trials in this country.
Alrighty, on to the next point. George is 15. Every state in this country says that a 15-year-old is a child. So why is George being held as an adult pending trial? In their infinite wisdom, elected prosecutors in every state have lobbied their state legislature to let them try kids as adults. How on earth that makes sense, we’ll probably never figure out. On the one hand we’re perfectly comfortable with the idea that kids have no rights until they’re 18, but on the other hand we want to punish them as adults when they “commit adult crimes.” There is NO SUCH THING as an “adult crime” under the law.
Ready for the final contradiction? Me too. George is a child, but he can be tried as adult. There’s no denying that George is smaller, weaker, less developed mentally and more vulnerable than the other prisoners in his county jail. Let’s review. So while we admit that George is a child, we want to punish him as an adult (apparently for the fun of it–sadomasochism brought to you by your local District Attorney), but gee whiz he’s still a child so we have to punish him more than other prisoners “for his own safety.”
According to youth justice advocates, kids kept in solitary confinement are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than adult counterparts. Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon is a serious charge with serious consequences. Depending on previous offenses, George could be looking at more than a decade in prison. But since when did being a kid in prison warrant a death sentence?
At StopDirectFile.org we encourage you to pose that question to state legislators and local District Attorneys. The justice system is supposed to be reasonable. There is nothing reasonable about George’s treatment or the treatment of thousands of other juveniles across the country every year.
October 14, 2010
A new video documentary titled “Your Neighbor’s Child” was recently aired on Wyoming PBS and discusses shocking shortcomings in Wyoming’s juvenile criminal justice system.
According to Wyoming Kids Count, Wyoming has no separate juvenile justice system, so a juvenile can accumulate a criminal record in adult courts for minor offenses like smoking in school or skateboarding on a public sidewalk. The film features interviews with Wyoming lawmakers including former U.S. Senator, turned juvenile justice reform advocate, Alan Simpson. Simpson was briefly jailed when he was teenager for shooting mail boxes and punching a cop and seeks a return to policies that focus on rehabilitating kids like him.
Next to Wyoming, Colorado has one of the toughest juvenile trial and sentencing structures in the United States. While there is no formal juvenile justice system in Wyoming, most juvenile trials in Colorado are handled by District Courts and District Attorneys get to decide whether kids will be tried as juveniles or adults. In many cases, an adult trial means an adult sentence.
Reaction to your “Your Neighbor’s Child” is typical. One comment at the the Laramie Boomerang, read, ” Why do we not hold children and parents accountable. It is not societies fault but parents who think it ‘takes a village to raise a child’. It takes parents and if children are held accountable for actions at a young age we would see less problems. Just like the person who gets 7 DUI’s in 5 years. Prosecute them and punish them the first time and maybe they will think twice. ”
The problem is that when kids are punished for minor offenses they don’t learn “to think twice” about what they did. They learn to “think twice” about how they got caught. In other cases, kids get caught up in bad situations. A friend commits a serious crime like aggravated assault. Rather than turn on their friend, they try to help him or her and become a party to the crime.
The bible says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Whether you’re a Christian or not, that’s good advice. As a society we have a responsibility to educate both youth and parents. The fact is that the law entraps young people and rather than trying to sort out what happened, we just throw kids away. That isn’t right. People like Alan Simpson and the makers of “Your Neighbor’s Child” deserve a great deal of credit for working to make things better for children and their parents.
October 6, 2010
The greatest miscarriage of justice happens when a supposedly self-correcting system fails to correct itself. Alan Sudduth was convicted as a juvenile for murder in 1995 and sentenced to 70 years in prison on a plea deal. The problem is that Sudduth didn’t actually kill anyone and someone else has repeatedly confessed to the murder.
According to Westword, the Colorado State Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Sudduth waited too long before filing his appeal based on ineffective counsel. Sudduth’s attorney, Alison Ruttenberg, is appealing to the state supreme court. While the Court of Appeals may be technically correct according to the law, they have utterly failed to recognize the injustice that has been done.
As a general rule, there is no statute of limitations on filing murder charges and there should be no statute of limitations on overturning a wrongful conviction. The Arapahoe County District Attorney in 1995 knowingly filed adult charges against Sudduth when the preponderance of evidence pointed to someone else. Sudduth was too young and too naive to understand the gravity of the decisions his attorneys were making on his behalf. The reason we have court appointed attorneys is to protect defendants against their own ignorance of the law. If they fail to effectively and faithfully represent the interests of their client, the system fails. No judge should ever condone that–whether it fits on their calendar or not.
Sudduth deserves parole.