For Juvenile Offenders, Supreme Court Ruling Opens Door To Parole
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile offenders to receive automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Until a few weeks ago, it was uncertain whether the ruling applied retroactively. Now a more recent decision from the high court - Montgomery versus Louisiana - resolves that uncertainty. Youth Radio's Sayre Quevedo has been looking into how the ruling will affect an estimated 2,000 inmates already behind bars for convictions they received as juveniles.
SAYRE QUEVEDO, BYLINE: And as a teenager, Efren Paredes was convicted of murder, and he's been serving mandatory life without parole ever since. Now 42 years old, Paredes has spent the last 26 years of his life in Michigan prisons. And ever since the Supreme Court ruling in 2012, he's been on pins and needles, hoping that he might get a shot at parole.
EFREN PAREDES: Weeks turned into months, and months turned into a couple years. It was difficult to deal with that.
QUEVEDO: Now with the Montgomery ruling, states will have to review sentences like his, meaning release could become an option for all those who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole when they were juveniles. The Supreme Court decisions point to signs showing that the human brain isn't fully formed until age 25, underscoring teenagers diminished culpability and their unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. But for Jody Robinson, who runs the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, the new ruling is a slap in the face.
JODY ROBINSON: They're saying it's a wrong to throw them away and have them die in prison. What they're saying to me when they say something like that is, your brother's life was cut short, and that doesn't mean anything.
QUEVEDO: Robinson's older brother, James Cotaling, was killed but a teen more than 25 years ago. Before January's decision, she felt assured her days inside courtrooms were finally over. But if the offender is given a parolable sentence, Robinson says she'll have no choice but to fight that parole every time her brother's murderer becomes eligible.
ROBINSON: Now I am the one sentenced to a life sentence. I could be back in court every two years for the rest of my life.
QUEVEDO: Even before the Montgomery ruling, some states had already interpreted the earlier court decision retroactively. Edel Gonzales was one of the first juvenile lifers to be paroled in California. He spent 23 years in prison after participating in a carjacking when he was 16. He ran out in front of a Toyota Carolla, and when the driver refused to open her door, a fellow gang member shot her in the head.
EDEL GONZALES: I live with that for the rest of my life, and I will never forget that. It is hard to talk about it, and unfortunately, I can't take my actions back.
QUEVEDO: Both the resentencing judge and parole officials pointed to Gonzales's remorse and his exemplary prison record as examples that he had rehabilitated himself, but Gonzales says he understands that he still needs to prove himself to society as a whole.
GONZALES: I know how society looks at people like me - that people like myself cannot be rehabilitated. But because we're young and as we grow up, we do change. We learn.
QUEVEDO: Jody Kent Lavy, who directed the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, hopes judges will keep an open mind when it comes to resentencing youth offenders.
JODY KENT LAVY: The work is to ensure that judges and parole board officials really embrace this notion that kids are different, and the unique characteristics of children really counsel against these very extreme and harsh punishments.
QUEVEDO: Efren Paredes, the Michigan prisoner who we heard from earlier, tells fellow juvenile lifers they have to be patient as state officials review their cases.
PAREDES: You know, I tell guys, if you've waited 20 years, you can wait a few more months, you know, for this thing to get resolved.
QUEVEDO: Within six months, Paredes could be resentenced and become eligible for parole, or Michigan prosecutors have the option to argue for life without parole all over again. Except now they'll have to satisfy tougher standards laid out by the high court, proving that a young offender is incorrigible with no hope of being rehabilitated. For NPR News, I'm Sayre Quevedo.
SHAPIRO: That story was produced by Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.