All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Prosecutors can make a difference!

I suppose it’s pretty unusual to pay tribute to a couple of Michigan Prosecutors during Black History Month. But then again, who could ever make the claim that Doug Tjapkes marches to a given drummer?

Those of us in prisoner advocacy rarely have high appreciation for county prosecutors. I have always grumbled about, what I call, a “prosecutor mentality.” I point out that prosecutors are elected to office, and it is not uncommon for the number of convictions to be a strong campaign issue for reelection.

To set the stage for my comments, let me first point out, as we observe Black History Month, that

-African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites
-Black men have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison in their lifetime
-Among black kids, 1 in 9 has had a parent in prison.

Let’s move on with a couple more stats:

-Nearly 80% of prosecutors in the United States are white men, and
-Here in Michigan, we have 83 counties…21 with female prosecutors.

I’m paying tribute today to two of those prosecutors: Kym Worthy, in Wayne County; and Carol Siemon in Ingham County. Prosecutor Worthy is black, Prosecutor Siemon is white, but notably, both are women!

We’ve had our differences with Prosecutor Worthy, but we honor her today for forming Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit. This unit “investigates claims of innocence, to determine whether there is clear and convincing new evidence that the convicted defendant was not the person who committed the conviction offense.” It’s about time! Chosen to head up this unit is another female lawyer of great integrity. Says the State Appellate Defender Office:  Valerie Newman has battled prosecutors as an attorney at the State Appellate Defenders Office for 23 years. Now she has joined the other side – to help her former opponents avoid sending innocent people to jail. 

We also pay tribute to Carole Siemon in Ingham County, today, for taking a bold approach to lifers in prison. Quoting an article in CityPulse: Siemon — with pro-bono help from former Assistant Attorney General Ron Emery — this year plans to begin a formal review of the 90 convicted murderers serving life in prison without parole in Ingham County. And for a select few, she said she plans to seek a gubernatorial commutation that could get them back out on the streets.

Why is she doing this?

“I just don’t believe in the death penalty,” Siemon explained. “I think life in prison without parole functions in a similar way, and I think everyone should have an opportunity to be able to get out some day.”

A tip of the HFP hat to these two prosecutors, striving to right some wrongs in Pure Michigan!

This is an election year. Know who you’re voting into the Prosecutor’s Office. There are things more important than party affiliation.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

In the ditch, or in gotta stop and help!

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?” The expert in the Law of Moses answered, “The one who showed pity.” Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

Marcia and I were driving home from our daughter Sue’s home in a snowstorm last night. We had just pulled onto Hickory Street, a rural road in Spring Lake Township, when I spotted a set of headlights on the wrong side of the street. They were way down in a water-filled ditch. Sue and our grandson Brenden were following us. Seeing my hazard lights, they stopped as well. I told Marcia, “I gotta see if that driver’s OK.”

By the time I got back there Brenden was already down in the ditch talking to the guy. He wasn’t injured, but getting his car out of that steep gulley was going to be a challenge.

Hickory is not a busy street, but along came another car as we were stopping. When he saw that we trying to help the guy, he kept on going. One other car approached. Same situation: cars along the street with hazard lights flashing, a set of headlights far down in the ditch. This driver not only chose to disregard someone else’s misfortune, but he stepped on the gas! He blew through the scene with snow flying and exhaust roaring. I doubt that he could have seen my gesture, had I thought to give him one.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind. Nobody wants to get out of their car on a dark, cold, snowy night to check on someone in a ditch. But the simple fact is that someone could have been you or me…it was a real person, in real trouble.

I tell this story not to boast about stopping. I tell it to draw a parallel.

This is what we do at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

One of our supporters told Matt and me this week, “A lot of people really admire you for what you are doing, but they wonder why you are being kind to this segment of society.”

The words of Jesus: Go and do the same.

That’s exactly what we’re doing. Just as the unfortunate driver was a real person, people in prison are human beings. Truth be told, they’ve been created in the image of God just like the rest of us living on the outside.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has already touched the lives of 200 new Michigan prisoners this year. Our records show that we have now assisted at least 10% of the entire state prison population, in one way or another, since we began 19 years ago!

I’m proud of our gang, our work, and our mission.

…the same.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Message to Governor Whitmer

OK, Governor Whitmer.

We’ve finally taken steps to fix the damn roads. Your response, on behalf of your party, to the State of the Union Address went flawlessly. Now it’s time for you to take a hard look at the #$%&* prisoner commutations!

Granted, it wasn’t very nice of former Governor Snyder to leave all those unanswered commutation requests in your lap. Decency would have suggested that he, at the very least, give all of those Michigan prisoners seeking clemency either a “yes” or a “no.” Yes, he did commute a handful of sentences. But, the rest of the applicants (and there were hundreds), never got answers.

Here’s the thing. When an application is denied, prisoners may try again in two years. Well, two years is coming up for some of these men and women, but they still haven’t received a formal answer to their first application! You can’t put this off any longer.

In recent months, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has reached out to you personally, and to your staff, offering to help with this massive stack of applications. We have commutations experts on our team (we’ve actually prepared a printed guideline for inmates to assist them in filling out the application forms!), and we’re willing to help, without charge or obligation. But to date, we can’t even get a meeting. We can’t even get someone to talk about it.

The stack continues to grow by the day. You not only have all of those old applications from the Governor Snyder days, but you have applications coming in now from prisoners who see and feel new hope because of a new administration, a new attitude.

We believe there are prisoners who deserve to have their sentences commuted. Regardless of how you and your staff feel about the 38,000 people who are housed and fed by our state prison system, they are human beings. They deserve an answer, a response.

Will you respond?

Can we help?

The position of HFP has been, and always will be, that 95% of the incarcerated will someday leave these prisons and reenter society. They’re going to be neighbors. To make them better citizens then, they deserve humane treatment now. They need someone to care.

Ignoring pleas for help from this segment of our society is no longer an option.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Not to worry if you have lotsa dollars and good lawyers? Think again!

I don’t have a law degree.

Worse than that, I don’t have a good understanding of the law. I’m also confused by what we call our system of justice.

I’ll give you three very short stories, changing names.

Bill was a highly successful businessman. By all appearances, he had everything. Beautiful family, several cars, and even three homes that his family enjoyed in various seasons. His two young sons were exceptionally popular. Parents of two of the boys’ acquaintances, however, were jealous of all this wealth, and connived to get a piece of it. They persuaded their boys to claim that Bill had molested them once in a back-yard camp-out. Bill would get arrested. Then, they could and would file a damage suit for thousands of dollars. It worked, just as they had planned.

Diana was a highly successful corporate executive. But, life wasn’t all that pleasant at home. Her husband struggled with mental illness. While dealing with extreme paranoia, he was constantly confiding to others that his wife was plotting against him, that she wanted to get rid of him. He wrote a document to that effect, saying that, “If I’m gone, you’ll know who to blame.” Then he took his own life. Guess who got blamed, arrested and convicted? You got it!

Matt’s consulting business was on a roll, and it kept him traveling most of the time. For one of his trips he unwisely chose an “on-and-off” woman friend who struggled with substance abuse. She assured him that she was no longer taking prescription meds. But, that was not the case, and while staying in a luxurious Michigan resort, she overdosed, stumbled and fell while Matt was gone with a client. Upon his return, Matt found the women bruised and bloodied, an argument mushroomed over the recurring substance problem, and the noise upset the neighbors. Hotel occupants called the cops, the woman claimed that those injuries were caused by Matt, and he wound up in the pokey. He’s still there!

Now here’s what I don’t get. All three of these people had the means to hire what they thought was the best legal counsel. Yet, in all three cases, these innocent people lost. Now, I can understand how that sometimes happens with jury trials. Prosecutors don’t win by accident. They’re good, and they strive for convictions. But here’s the confusing part. If our system is the best in the world, if, indeed, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, how come these three people are still in prison? Worse than that, all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. All this money spent, all these powerful attorneys, still no resolution, and nowhere else to turn! No more options. That’s justice?

I give these examples to my friends with law degrees. They pat my hand, and say, “Doug, you just don’t understand.”

There could not be a more accurate statement.