Category Archives: juvenile offenders

prosecutor's role in Massachusetts

Crucial time to make a burning call

Could you take a minute to call or email your state representative and ask them to support H.4011, the criminal justice reform bill?  
 
Could you ask someone else to do the same?  (Find legislators at https://malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator .)
Do you want to help strengthen the bill?  Are you curious about this process and want a little bit of civics education?  If so, keep reading.
For context — Proposed amendments must be filed by Nov. 9, and will be voted on early next week, right before the bill itself.  The more legislators co-sponsor an amendment before it is filed, the politically stronger it is.  They can co-sponsor after tomorrow too, but the political impact is smaller.  The Senate bill of An Act to Reform Criminal Justice had 162 proposed amendments, so I suspect plenty of amendments will be filed for the House bill too.
The dilemma — People who want real criminal justice reform face a balancing act.
On the one hand, we want the House bill to be as strong as possible.  After next week’s vote, the House and Senate bills will go to a conference committee, whose job it is to hash out a bill that both the House and the Senate will be willing to support in a yes/no vote (no amendments allowed).  The stronger the House bill, the stronger the final bill is likely to be.  If a provision in the House bill is amended to match the language in the Senate bill, that’s one less thing to negotiate over.  Note that sometimes the House language is better than the Senate language.
On the other hand, the most important thing is to get a law out of this long process.  That means either getting Governor Baker’s support or having enough votes to override a veto.  To be veto-proof, a bill needs two-thirds support in both the House and the Senate.  If the final bill is so ambitious that it can’t get that level of support, we could really lose.
Legislators are now trying to get a sense of how much support various amendments would have.  Would plenty of state reps vote for this amendment?  Does it risk undermining support for the bill as a whole?  How far to push?  How cautious to be?  Massachusetts has 160 state representatives, so that’s a lot of people to talk with.
My suggestion — I don’t have perfect answers to these questions, and I don’t think anyone does.  I do, however, believe it would be helpful for you to ask your state rep to co-sponsor the following 12 possible amendments that are actively being discussed:
+  Raise the lower age of juvenile jurisdiction to 12 (not just 10);
+  Raise the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction to 19;
+  Raise the felony larceny threshold to $1,500 (the level it would be if it had kept up with inflation);
+  Reduce the criminalization of poverty by further reducing or eliminating fines and fees;
+  Eliminate mandatory minimums for all lower-level drug offenses;
+  Raise the thresholds for trafficking (they are currently what someone with a serious substance abuse issue would use in a few days, so would entrap users);
+  Increase pre-arraignment diversion options for juveniles (since getting a court record can affect someone for the rest of their life);
+  Allow juvenile records to be eligible for expungement after 3 years (H.4011 says 10 years, which is a very long time);
+  Put into statute that juveniles are not to be shackled without a specific reason;
+  Follow the advice of Citizens for Juvenile Justice on what juvenile data is important to collect;
+  Protect children by considering primary caretakers’ parental responsibilities when sentencing; and
+  Track the savings from reduced prison populations and reinvest half of it in job training, job placement, and other support for re-entry.
If this makes sense to you, I suggest you make this a two-step process.  First, call your state rep and tell them (or their aide) that you are asking them to vote for H.4011 and co-sponsor some amendments that would strengthen it.  Tell them you will email a list of a dozen amendments, so they will have them in writing rather than taking notes on the phone.  Then, follow up with the email as soon as you get off the phone.  A draft email is below.  Feel free to shorten the list.
It’s helpful for state reps to hear from constituents while making political judgment calls.  It gives them more information, and it lets them tell other legislators they are getting pressure from their constituents.  Most importantly, it lets them know we’re paying attention.  They may or may not do exactly what we ask in any particular decision, but they also have knowledge that we don’t.  When we work together, better decisions get made.
Now more than ever, I believe, it’s important for citizens to understand and participate in our democratic political process.
— Lori Kenschaft, EMIT Core Member
Blog editor’s note: Here are two more amendments that will insure humane treatment for incarcerated people and save the state money:
*  Rep. Balser’s amendments to limit the Department of Corrections’ cruel over-reliance of solitary confinement and to provide data on its use; and
* Rep. Connolly’s two amendments to broaden medical parole for incapacitated and terminally ill inmates, which will save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
————————————————————-Draft Email—————————————————-
Dear Rep. ________,
Thank you for talking with me today.  [Or, “I want to thank your aide, [name here], for speaking with me today.]
As I said on the phone, I encourage you to vote for the omnibus criminal justice reform bill, H.4011, and for amendments to strengthen it.
In particular, I encourage you to co-sponsor and vote for the following amendments:
+  Raise the lower age of juvenile jurisdiction to 12 (not just 10);
+  Raise the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction to 19;
+  Reduce the criminalization of poverty by further reducing or eliminating fines and fees;
+  Raise the felony larceny threshold to $1,500 (the level it would be if it had kept up with inflation);
+  Eliminate mandatory minimums for all lower-level drug offenses;
+  Raise the thresholds for trafficking (they are currently what someone with a serious substance abuse issue would use in a few days, so would entrap users);
+  Increase pre-arraignment diversion options for juveniles (since getting a court record can affect someone for the rest of their life);
+  Allow juvenile records to be eligible for expungement after 3 years (H.4011 says 10 years, which is a very long time);
+  Put into statute that juveniles are not to be shackled without a specific reason;
+  Follow the advice of Citizens for Juvenile Justice on what juvenile data is important to collect;
+  Protect children by considering primary caretakers’ parental responsibilities when sentencing;
+  Track the savings from reduced prison populations and reinvest half of it in job training, job placement, and other supports;
+  Rep. Balser’s amendments to limit the Department of Corrections’ cruel over-reliance of solitary confinement and to provide data on its use; and
+  Rep. Connolly’s amendments to broaden medical parole for incapacitated and terminally ill inmates, which will save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Thank you for putting more justice into our justice system.
Sincerely,
[Your name]
[Your address and phone number]
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While ‘affluenza’ teen went free, similar case led to prison

This Jan. 27, 2016 photo shows Jaime Arellano during an interview in the visitor’s room at the… Read more  [This story courtesy of The Marshall Project and the Associate Press]. 

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.

Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.

The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.

 Couch lost control as he drove his family’s pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and consumed beer that some of them had stolen from Wal-Mart. The vehicle veered into a crowd of people helping the driver on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.

The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.

But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”

Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.

Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.

Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.

Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”

Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”

Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.

Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.

Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.

“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”

On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.

Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.

Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.

Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.

At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.

While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.

“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”

Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.

Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.

In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.

Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.

Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.

Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.

Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.

But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”

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Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .

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This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.