June 14, 2009
Investigators released autopsy results in the death of a 16-year-old inmate at Arizona State Prison Complex Tucson. The results show heart disease claimed the life of Edgar Vega in July. He collapsed in the prison kitchen and was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Vega, a Mexican national, was convicted in
and was serving five years for aggravated assault. Maricopa County
I just wanted to add to this that since Edgar's death I've had contact with friends of his; he is very much missed by his friends and family. My bet is that his community was willing to do whatever they could to work things out in a way that would allow him to serve a sentence safely and successfully at home or in a residential setting - six people addressed his sentencing judge on his behalf, trying to keep him out of prison. I believe there are somewhere just under 100 youth in AZ who were sentenced as adults and are being held in juvenile programs in the adult prisons until they hit 18 - then it's straight into hell, I'd imagine, to finish the remainder of their time.
If judges in this state think our juvenile corrections system can't get a 15-year-old boy out of a gang with three years of complete control over him and plant him in college when he turns 18 instead of $26,000/year prison cell, then there are serious problems with both the bench and the department. We already know that education is a protective factor against criminalization. There's no reason that I see that a contract couldn't be made for a few youth each year to go from detention right into school under a supervised release - especially kids who already have community support. If they need extended supervison beyond the age of 18, then make that their sentence instead of adult prison or half-way houses in which their primary identity will be formed around their criminality. Finish up their GED's in juvenile detention and them give them a chance to just be college students - something most may have never expected to be.
I'm not saying set up all the emerging sexual predators in dorms and frat houses (they already have enough there). But there are kids who would definitely be worth giving it a shot - including those not sentenced as adults but who end up in the system immediately anyway. Try it for five years and check recidivism rates against what was anticipated. Then check overall costs against alternatives. Look at qualitative outcome measures, too - employment, income levels, housing stability, etc. It's got to be better than what we have - which today is more young men of color living in America's prisons than in our college dorms.
In the meantime, if I can organize a Courtwatch (here's New Orleans' example) core group, I'd want to make this a main focus: the sentencing of youthful offenders. With regular reporting from juvenile courts, voters can make the use of more creative, alternative sentencing options for juveniles being sentenced as adults an explicit standard by which they evaluate the re-election bids of judges and prosecutors alike. Anyone interested in organizing or participating in such an activity, please contact me at my email; now would be the time to do it if we want it to be meaningful for 2010 elections.