The Kitchen, Part 2: for life, from Pontiac

From Semaj Moran’s point of view, his customers cheated him.  Big time.  It was only ten dollars worth of marijuana, but the two women didn’t even pay that.  Instead, they gave him a fake bill.  He decided to collect what was due.

In a home on the bleak outer edge of Detroit–Pontiac, Michigan–Semaj Moran and an adult accomplice settled the score.  Semaj Moran used the gun, twice.  Loretta Fournier and Luann Robinson died.  Loretta had been shot three times.  One of the shots entered her head at close range.

Semaj Moran was fifteen years old.

Today he is seventeen, sentenced last month to prison for the rest of his natural life–a new poster child for juvenile life sentence cases in Michigan.  A new focus, too, for the troubling question: what do we do with them?

As someone who comes down hard on the side of victim’s rights and justice, I’m not eager to see Semaj Moran back out on the streets at 18 or 21.  More, until recently, I would have said that keeping him locked up for the rest of his life is the right thing to do.  He ended two lives.  He was old enough to know the meaning of right and wrong.  Above all, he broke his contract with the community that has a right to be safe from him from now on.

I like being safe, or as safe as I can be.  I don’t want people who committed violent crimes back in the community–in my neighborhood, on my street, living next door.  I don’t want to feel threatened when I go to my car at night.  And if justice means anything, the families of the victims of these destructive children and teenagers shouldn’t have to wonder who’s next.

I’ve been set in that opinion, in one case or another, for most of my adult life.  That is, until I met Efren Paredes.  Efren, serving out his own life for a crime he never committed, is convinced that juveniles need a chance to turn around.

Straight up, I was not willing to think this.  I’m committed to Efren’s case–wrongful conviction is wrongful conviction–but I’ve struggled to meet his thinking.  Yet he has made me think, and remember–to think about the teenagers I’ve known.  How scattered they can be.  How poor their judgment is.  How they can make a colossal, life-wrecking mistake and not understand how they got there.

I remember how smart-stupid I was as a teenager.  Easily smart-stupid enough to think I could live forever, because when you’re a teenager you know nothing really bad can really happen.  At least, not to you.

I recall what I’ve known for years, and it matters more now: that the adult brain–the part that controls judgment–doesn’t fully develop until age twenty-five.  Odd to look back on it–how the world changed after I was twenty-five.  All the adults I knew got smarter somehow, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t have anything to do with me starting to think like one.

And yet–who in their right mind, including me, wants a child capable of brutal murder let loose all over again?

Much of Michigan thinks the same way.  Juvenile or adult.  Parole or life sentence.  Either or.  If you’re too much of a risk to release at eighteen, you’re just too much of a risk.  Senate Bill 319 proceeds on nearly the same lines.   Alright, we have to give a judge the option of allowing you parole–but we won’t make it a very big option.  Let’s say forty-five years.  We’re not taking any chances.

There was a time I would have said, “Fair enough.”  When it comes to public safety, I’m not big on taking chances or giving them.  But change is happening, and I’m willing to think this question through:

Can we–or how can we–craft laws that protect our communities and take into account that a child, even a teenager, is still a malleable, perhaps salvageable thing?

Florida and Indiana are among the states showing a possible way.  Florida, for example, has what are called probation and restitution centers.  While these are short-term residential programs–not to exceed twelve months–their services and structure could suggest a longer term model.

From the Florida Department of Corrections website:

“Offender/residents participate in group counseling and case management sessions. The social learning environment provides offenders/residents with continuous peer support and challenges in daily living skills. The major learning themes are criminal thinking patterns, life skills, budgeting, personal responsibility and accountability, and employment readiness or skills training. Offender/residents prepare for re-entry into the work environment and transition into the community. “

Indiana, too, is changing, with legislation recently passed to allow judges to impose suspended adult sentences on juveniles: according to the IndyStar,

“Judges can sentence juveniles as adults but send them to a juvenile facility, where proponents of the law say there would be more supervision, better educational opportunities and a better chance to turn their lives around. Then, at age 18 when it’s time for the juvenile to be moved to an adult prison, there will be another hearing before a judge.

“If the 18-year-old can convince the judge he or she has straightened out, the judge can suspend the rest of the sentence. The young man or woman would then walk free, but any slip-up and he or she could be sent to adult prison to serve out the rest of the sentence.”

Too easy?  Too risky?  So what might conservative Michigan do?

I’ll introduce the possibility I have in mind by saying that I do not believe a young person can or should resume a fully normal life after committing murder.  To do so requires community trust, and the community has the right to withhold or reserve that trust.

On the other hand, there’s more than one way to approach the violation of trust–a long-term approach.

***

Let’s imagine that “Billy,” at the age of fifteen, shoots a classmate and robs him of a cellphone.  Under Michigan law as it stands, Billy is likely up for life-without-parole.  Prosecutors, judge and jury all agree, he committed the crime, and a much-loved teenager is dead.  Billy had no excuse for the shooting.  He took a life, and he’s going to give up all freedom of his own.  The idea of letting him back on the street at eighteen is laughable.

But let’s change the law, and change Billy’s story.

We’ll say that up to the age of eighteen, Billy stays in a secure facility for juvenile offenders.  He finishes high school, receives intensive counseling, and stays out of trouble.

Billy, now eighteen, moves to a secure facility created by our imaginary new law.  This is a facility for youthful offenders who were juveniles when their crimes were committed.  It contains no offender who was older than 17 at the commission of the crime.  In this facility, a wide range of counseling services, education, and work programs are offered.  Inmates earn their way into desirable job training programs by completing basic ones successfully.  Billy not only continues counseling, but enters college and completes an associate degree.  By age twenty-one, he’s ready for the next-step–training in a technical, mechanical or agricultural field that will make him a highly skilled worker.

At twenty-five, seven years after entering the institution, Billy is up for his first probation review.  Probation has graduated levels, and is highly restricted.  However, having completed all available counseling and training programs AND having continued without major violations of rehabilitation center policies, Billy is eligible.  He would not be eligible if he had failed any of the required programs.

His first step in restricted probation is to find a position with one of the rehabilitation center’s partner companies.  These are successful companies who helped to provide Billy with his training, and will take a strong role in mentoring him in his new job.

For the next five years, Billy must return every night–either to the rehab center or to a half-way house in the locality of his job.  He must wear an electronic monitoring device.  He must meet weekly with his probation officer AND a counselor, who will work with his employer-mentors to make sure his performance meets company standards.  If he fails to do his job successfully, he must return to the rehabilitation center until he can be placed in another job.  The five years of successful, supervised work experience are a requirement for the next step–as is paying restitution from his earnings to the family of his victim.

Assuming Billy has passed these five years with flying colors, he is now thirty.  It’s time for him to branch out.  He can now choose another employment.  He can also choose his place of residence within the State of Michigan.  However, he must continue to report to his probation officer every month, and maintain steady employment for the next five years.  He must continue to wear an electronic monitoring device.  He must check in with a counselor every month.  The counselor’s job is to spot problems, either in employment or living conditions, and work with Billy to help him make constructive choices.  If the counselor and probation officer agree that Billy is running into trouble, a board can require him to resume more frequent counseling and monitoring appointments, or help him to find employment again.

At the age of thirty-five, twenty years after the crime he committed, Billy is a college-educated, skilled worker, with ten years of solid job history behind him.  If he has committed NO violations of his parole, and maintains a productive lifestyle, a judge can choose to suspend the rest of his sentence.  ANY violent felony violation committed during the rest of his life will result in his return to adult prison for life.

If Billy has completed most of his programs successfully, but had one or two parole violations, the judge can decide how long and under what conditions to extend his monitored parole.  Four or more minor parole violations may be grounds for revoking parole and returning him to the appropriate secured facility until he can prove he deserves another chance at parole.

But what if Billy never passed at all?  What if he never got through the early programs, prior to age eighteen, and later in the youthful offender rehabilitation center?

This is where conditions kick in.  If Billy made it through some steps, but not others, he may still be at the center, working to fulfill the parole-after-job-training requirements.  If, by the age of twenty-five, he has never made any effort, has committed other violent offenses while in custody, or is found to be a community risk with a psychiatric disorder not responding to treatment, the State of Michigan must petition a judge to declare him incorrigible.  Upon a judge’s declaration of incorrigibility, Billy will then join the adult prison population to serve out life without parole, or, if his mental condition warrants it, be sent to a secured psychiatric facility for life.

Essentially, he will never be free, unless and until: he is a competent adult.  He proves his willingness to improve himself.  He makes restitution.  He shows that he has the life-skills and self-control to make it through a highly restrictive program of correction.

***

Billy’s story is not the law in Michigan yet.  It may never be the law.  But it’s a possibility of how the law could work, given a willingness on the part of the State to invest in the potential and future of its youngest prisoners.

In the meantime, with House Bill 4806 coming up for consideration, we may be looking at baby steps–at one change at a time, even a gradual one, to the meaning of juvenile justice.  Allowing Michigan judges to choose a term of years–and hopefully, from a wide range of probation options following that term of years–would be a good start.  Certainly, it’s time to move past “either-or”–a dichotomy that’s been alternately too lenient or else ineffectively harsh.

And then what?  As for Semaj Moran?  If Billy’s story were his story?

I’ve been thinking it over.  And I’d be willing to give it a try.

 

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