Originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered on February 15, 2016
In 2012, The United States Supreme Court ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile offenders to receive automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole. But until a few weeks ago, it was uncertain whether the ruling applied retroactively. Now, a new decision from the high court puts those questions to rest.
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 he might get a shot at parole.
“Weeks turned into months and months turned into a couple years,” said Paredes. “It was difficult to deal with that.”
The Montgomery v Louisiana ruling will affect an estimated two thousand people already behind bars for convictions they received as juveniles. Now states will have to review sentences like Paredes, 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 science showing that the human brain isn’t fully formed until age 25. Underscoring teenager’s 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.
“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 taken purposefully and cut short, and that doesn’t mean anything,’” said Robinson.
Robinson’s older brother, James Cotaling, was killed by 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.
“Now I am the one sentenced to a life sentence,” said Robinson. “I could be back in court every two years for the rest of my life.”
Even before the Montgomery ruling, some states had already interpreted the earlier court decision retroactively.
Edel Gonzalez was one of the first juvenile lifters 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.
“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,” said Gonzalez.
Both the resentencing judge and parole officials pointed to Gonzalez’s remorse and his exemplary prison record as examples that he had rehabilitated himself. But Gonzalez says he understands that he still needs to prove himself to society as a whole.
“I know how society looks at people like me,” said Gonzalez. “That people like myself cannot be rehabilitated. But because we’re young and as we grow up we do change. We learn.”
Jody Kent Lavy, who directs the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, hopes judges will keep an open mind when it comes to re-sentencing youth offenders.
“The work is to insure that judges and parole board officials really embrace this notion that kids are different and that the unique characteristics of children really counsel against these very extreme and harsh punishments,” said Lavy.
Efren Paredes tells fellow juvenile lifers they have to be patient as state officials review their cases.
“You know I tell guys, if you’ve waited 20 years you can wait a few more months for this thing to get resolved,” said Paredes.
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.