Washington Post: Justices will scrutinize life sentences for youths

The story of Sara Kruzan, a juvenile offender serving a life sentence in California, has brought a lot of traffic to this blog and that of Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing. 

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin reviewing the life sentences of two youths incarcerated in Florida, one of which is being represented by Equal Justice Initiative Founder and Director Bryan Stevenson.  Of all the fifty states, Alabama has sentenced the most black youths to life in prison.

You can read the Washington Post article here.  Below are highlights from the article.

Across the country, 111 people are serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles that did not result in a death, according to one report; 77 of them are locked up in Florida, for crimes including armed robbery and carjacking.

Stevenson contends that Florida made no conscious policy decision that 13-year-olds should be eligible for life without parole for a non-homicide. No state that has debated the question has set the age that low. Instead, he said, Sullivan and others were caught up in a legislative reaction to escalating crime.

“What happened is we lowered the minimum age for trying kids as adults and brought them into the adult system, and we expanded the range of very harsh sentences for an adult, and these two things have collided,” he said.

Sullivan and Graham are supported by a wide-ranging group of organizations: the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and academics and social scientists who argue that juveniles cannot be held responsible for their actions in the same way adults are. For the same reason, they say, younger teenagers are not entrusted with decisions such as voting, marrying or drinking.

A group of educators and social scientists told the court that such research was crucial to the 2005 decision that juveniles should not be subject to the death penalty. “The principal purposes of sentencing — punishing the culpable and deterring the rational — are not furthered by denying the possibility of parole to adolescents,” the group said.


Listen: Two Torn Families Show Flip Side Of 3 Strikes Law

Listen here.

NPR All Things Considered

October 28, 2009

Fifteen years ago, California voters passed the strictest three strikes sentencing law in the nation. It doubled the penalties for second felonies that were serious or violent. The so-called third strike carries a mandatory prison sentence of 25 years to life.

About two dozen states have similar laws. But only California counts any felony as a third strike, not just a serious or violent one.

The law was the result of a deathbed promise Mike Reynolds, of Fresno, Calif., made to his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, after she was fatally shot.

“It may have sounded like an idle promise at the time, but I promised her that if I could do anything to prevent this from happening to other kids, I would do everything I could,” Reynolds says. “And I’m still trying to keep that promise today.”

The Reynolds Story

In June of 1992, Kimber Reynolds was leaving a popular local restaurant, when a couple of guys came by on a motorbike and tried to grab her purse.

“Then one of the men — without warning, literally, without provocation — pulled out a .357 Magnum, which is one of the most powerful handguns in the world, and placed it in her ear and pulled the trigger,” Reynolds says. “Executed her on the spot.”

Kimber was rushed to the hospital. Twenty-six hours after she was shot, she died.

Reynolds learned that the men responsible for Kimber’s murder were both repeat offenders. In those days, there seemed to be a lot of them out there.

Polly Klaas, from Petaluma, Calif., was kidnapped from a slumber party about a year and a half after Kimber Reynolds’ murder. The Klaas family used television and the Internet to keep Polly’s story in the news as authorities continued their search. Two months after her disappearance, the police announced the arrest of Richard Allen Davis.

Davis eventually was charged with and convicted of raping and murdering 12-year-old Polly. Those were his final criminal acts in a long list dating back to his childhood.

It was a familiar tale to Reynolds.

“It became apparent that the system itself was re-releasing the same offenders over and over again,” he says.

The voters seemed to think so too. Reynolds had no trouble getting enough signatures to get his three strikes initiative on the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly.

But to this day Reynolds sees criticism and attacks on his achievement coming from many quarters. Defending three strikes has become his second job.

“I never dreamed that this would require the long-term maintenance that it has demanded,” Reynolds says. “We find attempts to undo this law, other initiatives placed on the ballot to literally gut the law. It has become a life-changing event for us.”

‘I Feel Terribly Guilty’

It’s also been a life-changing event for Sue Reams, but for a different reason. Her son Shane is in prison, doing 25 years to life for being with a friend when the friend sold $20 worth of cocaine to an undercover cop.

“They considered my son the lookout,” Reams says.

And that was Shane’s third strike. He’s one of 3,000 people doing 25 years to life for nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting, auto theft or possessing small amounts of drugs. And each of those prisoners costs the state more than $48,000 a year.

Shane’s third strike came about partly because of a decision his mother made years before when she noticed some things missing from her house — her husband’s antique model cars, money, jewelry.

She figured that Shane took the stuff to get money for drugs. He’d had a problem with that since his teens. And Reams tried to deal with it by practicing tough love.

“Tough love tells you that you take a stand,” she says. “So I, I took a stand.”

And she called the police. Shane had also stolen some stuff from a neighbor’s house and Reams persuaded her neighbor to press charges as well. Then she gave Shane the news.

“And I said, ‘You need to turn yourself in, maybe you’ll get a drug program. You need a drug program,’ ” she says. “I drove him to the Irvine Police Department and he went in and told them what he had done.”

But instead of getting a drug program, Shane was charged with two counts of residential burglary. He did some time in prison. And years later, when he got picked up on that drug charge, the burglary convictions counted as his first two strikes.

“I’m angry with myself,” Reams says. “I feel terribly guilty. I guess that’s why I’ve worked so long to try and change the law.”

An Initiative To Overturn Three Strikes Defeated

That effort nearly succeeded five years ago. Proposition 66 would have required a third strike to be a serious or violent crime. The measure was leading in the polls until a couple of weeks before the election.

At the time, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began appearing in a TV commercial denouncing the ballot measure.

“Under Proposition 66, 26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison, child molesters, rapists, murderers,” he said. “Vote ‘No’ on 66. Keep them behind bars.”

Schwarzenegger was popular at the time, and the ads aired constantly. The initiative was defeated, but Reams still hopes to change the law and get her son out of prison.

“He went in there at 27 years old. He’s now 40, now almost 41. So that’s been his life — and ours too,” she says.

But Reynolds spends just as much energy working to preserve the law that Reams hates. Repeat offenders, he says, get exactly what they deserve.

“All they have to do is stop doing crime,” he says. “That’s all we ask. And they’ll never be charged under three strikes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

In the 15 years since three strikes was passed, crime has declined significantly in California, as it has across the nation. Reynolds credits the law for that. Independent studies, however, have generally found that three strikes has not been a major factor.

One thing that’s beyond dispute, though, is that the shocking crime that changed Reynolds’ life years ago has also changed thousands of people’s lives in California.

And the prison population continues to rise…

As of October 12, 2009 the female prison population in Alabama was 2,307.  Today, October 27, 2009 shows that those numbers have increased to 2,333.  It is quite ironic that after we had our event on reducing the rates of incarceration, those very numbers would skyrocket in a matter of days. It may seem that a 26 inmate increase is negligible, but given the current prison operating capacity of 191%, even one more woman contributes to the immense overcrowding.

Something needs to be done.

Another mess of a story makes the papers

An article that appears today on Times Daily.com about the potential early release of Felita Vaughn is a fine example of the type of reporting and commentary that continues to condone the over-reliance on and overcrowding of Alabama’s women’s prisons by missing the point completely.

First, there is not only one prison for women in Alabama, but three.  When AWRN publishes numbers saying that Alabama’s women’s prisons are all at over 100% capacity, it is done to not only stress the issue of overcrowding, but to also stress the point that to build a new, additional prison is to open the door to the future overcrowding of just one more prison.  Alabama has done it in the past and with our judges’ over-reliance on imprisonment, there is no reason to think the state would deviate from its history of brick-and-mortar corrections’ projects.

The problem of overcrowding can’t be solved by building a new prison because the problem of overcrowding falls squarely on the shoulders of two entities (of which the Alabama Department of Corrections is not one) that have the power to reduce women’s imprisonment: Alabama judges and the Alabama Parole Board.  

 The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) can only reduce overcrowding by requesting state funds to build more prison facilities, something that the above facts should lead one to recognize as unsustainable for our state fiscally.  ADOC can help speed along a woman’s possible parole–and AWRN cannot stress enough possible parole–by reviewing her classification as a prisoner and moving her into a lower classification based on her progress in prison and eligibility for such a new classification.  Classification reviews and reductions like this by ADOC can show the Parole Board what progress the prisoner has made in prison–her good behavior, etc.  Still, this does not guarantee her parole.

What is most frustrating about the article produced by Times Daily.com is the statement by District Attorney Chris Connolly that of a 15 year sentence, he would like to see Vaughn serve at least 5 years. 

Why?  In what arbitrary manner was a 15 year sentence for one single count of distribution rationalized by Lauderdale County Circuit Court Judge Gil Self anyway?  And from that 15 year sentenced how was it that 5 years of incarceration was arrived at?  How was the magical number 5, with which the DA’s office feels satisfied, calculated?  Is it because 5 years would be a third of Vaughn’s sentence?  What does that even mean in reality, in the world where we all live, one third of a sentence?  Does it even have any empirical value on say something like recidivism rates?  No, it doesn’t.

Furthermore, the article seems to paint the picture that if the persons Vaughn distributed to are in prison, Vaughn herself should remain in prison.  What logic is that?  Ten, fifty, 1,000 wrongs make a right? 

One good thing mentioned in the article is that Vaughn may be sent to L.I.F.E. Tech to benefit from the transitional center’s programming under the exact mission for which the facility was originally intended.  It is our hope that the Parole Board did see fit today to send Vaughn to L.I.F.E. Tech in lieu of remaining in ADOC custody. 

One has to recognize the position the Alabama Parole Board is also put in by judges over-sentencing.  When the Parole Board reviews a woman’s case such as Vaughn, it must contend with the idea that is presented to the public that such a sentence was necessary to begin with by way of the judge’s ruling and the DA’s recommendation.  Granting parole to someone who has served only months of their 15 year sentence sounds lenient, or irresponsible.  But that kind of judgment of the Parole Board’s decision ignores entirely the possibility (if not reality) that the individual was sentenced to an extraordinary, ridiculous sentence to begin with.

If anyone feels upset or shorted, they should direct their attention not at Vaughn, but at those individuals who have filled Alabama’s prisons with women just like Vaughn–non-violent, almost always first-time, drug offenders.  Vaughn will receive in prison, at a considerable premium to tax payers, many of the same types of programming that are offered outside of prison. 

Vaughn’s 15 year prison sentence at the current daily rate that it costs ADOC to house a prisoner (roughly $44) would cost Alabama tax payers an incredible $240,900!  Vaughn is a non-violent offender.  How many of her clients are also in Alabama’s prisons?  What is the total tab tax payers are picking up because of over-sentencing and our justice system’s over-reliance on imprisoning drug offenders? 

What is Vaughn learning and receiving in prison that she could not receive in her community?  Lauderdale County has a community corrections facility and if Alabama ever gets around to it, persons convicted of distribution like Vaughn will be community corrections eligible, saving the state millions each year and more importantly, keeping women in their communities and reducing the destruction of families by incarceration. 

The question of why Vaughn is in prison serving a 15 year sentence in the first place must be asked over and over again because if the point of a woman such as Vaughn serving such a lengthy sentence is to improve public safety, one must ask what numbers are informing the agencies of Alabama’s criminal justice system that one woman serving 15 years in prison will improve our public safety.  What evidence has shown that these sentences benefit Alabama’s communities?   To venture a guess, most likely zero.

Preview Video: LOCK DOWN Event Tonight @ UAB


Please join AWRN for LOCK-DOWN: Reducing Women’s Imprisonment in Alabama at 6:30pm TODAY at UAB’s Heritage Hall, Room 102 (corner of 14th and University Blvd.). The event is being co-sponsored by UAB’s Department of Urban Affairs, Department of Women’s Studies, and Department of Justice Sciences. It is free and open to the public.

Panelists Include:

Dr. Kathryn Morgan, Director, UAB Master of Science in Criminal Justice Program

Cheryl Sabel, Independent Consultant, Southern Education Foundation

Leslie Hales, Director, Children’s Aid Society Project Independence Program

Dr. Eddie Lancaster, Correctional Re-entry Coordinator, Alabama Department of Corrections

Jessica Hardy, Director, Office of Women’s Health, Alabama Department of Public Health

Ralph Hendrix, Program Manager, UAB Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities

Through presentations by issue experts, service providers, and community leaders, LOCK-DOWN will present the public with the unique opportunity to learn more about a range of high risk factors that most often land a woman in prison, as well as obstacles facing her reentry, both of which contribute to growing numbers of women in prison.

LOCK-DOWN will promote community-led education about women’s imprisonment, present actions being taken to sustainably reduce the number of women in prison in Alabama, and will allow AWRN to garner public feedback about imprisonment.

Join us to find out how YOU can help sustainably reduce the number of women in prison in Alabama!

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Not in Vain: Special Feature

Lt. Steve Searcy, commander of the Montgomery Police Department's Domestic Violence Bureau, said that cooperation between the department and various agencies aiding domestic violence victims has caused a drop in domestic violence homicides in Montgomery. (Advertiser)

Lt. Steve Searcy, commander of the Montgomery Police Department's Domestic Violence Bureau, said that cooperation between the department and various agencies aiding domestic violence victims has caused a drop in domestic violence homicides in Montgomery. (Advertiser)


October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and as the Governor’s Conference on Domestic Violence kicks off today in the state’s capitol, please take a moment to read this Montgomery Advertiser feature about how the state of Alabama has, and continues, to change its response to domestic violence. 

Each month, AWRN receives letters from women in prison who are there because of an offense related to their attempts to escape their domestic abusers.  The problem is unfortunately alive and well in Alabama.  Please consider donating your time and resources to the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence and their partner shelters throughout the state.

NY Times: One Protection for Prisoners

NY Times Editorial

Published: October 13, 2009

The practice of keeping female prisoners in shackles while they give birth is barbaric. But it remains legal in more than 40 states, and advocates of prisoners’ rights say it is all too common. A federal appeals court has now found that the shackling of an Arkansas inmate may have violated the Constitution – but the margin was uncomfortably close.

Shawanna Nelson, a nonviolent offender, was 29 years old and six months pregnant when she arrived in Arkansas’s McPherson Unit prison in 2003. When she went into labor, she was taken to a civilian hospital. Although there was no reason to consider her a flight risk, her legs were shackled to a wheelchair, and then, while she went through labor, to the sides of a hospital bed.

Ms. Nelson testified that the shackles prevented her from moving her legs, stretching or changing positions during the most painful part of her labor. She offered evidence that the shackling had caused a permanent hip injury, torn stomach muscles, an umbilical hernia that required an operation and extreme mental anguish.

In a suit against prison officials, Ms. Nelson charged that her Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment had been violated. She won an early ruling from the trial court, but a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected her suit. Now the full appeals court has reversed that decision, ruling, with a 6-to-5 vote, that a jury could find that Ms. Nelson’s shackling was unconstitutional. The court relied in part on a 2002 Supreme Court holding that Alabama’s practice of tying prisoners to a hitching post violated the Eighth Amendment.

The ruling should help persuade other courts and state legislatures that the shackling of pregnant prisoners is unconstitutional. Several states have already made the practice illegal under certain circumstances – including New York, which did so this year.

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s prison project, called the circuit court’s ruling “thrilling,” given how conservative the federal courts have been on prison issues. It is clearly an important victory. Sadly, it is also a sign of how low the bar has been set for the humane treatment of prisoners.


The shackling of pregnant prisoners remains an allowable practice in the state of Alabama; however, AWRN cannot comment on how often or how recently pregnant female prisoners in Alabama have been shackled.  The practice should be removed from the list of allowed security measures.