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  • Doug Tjapkes

Juvie lifers deserve better from the media...and all of us!

Criticizing the media is a real challenge for me. You see, I am a part of it! That’s right. Long before I was a prisoner advocate, I was a reporter, and a darn good one! Today, I’m fuming about headlines in weekend MLive newspapers. Yet, I must confess that at one time I might have done the same thing! Might have, that is, before I got into this prisoner business. Here are the headlines that raised my hackles: “Three young women, bound, raped and strangled.” “The murders in Kalamazoo that summer nearly five decades ago left the community in fear.” “Now, the convicted killer wants to be a free man.” The story is that of Michigan inmate Brent Koster who committed the crime when he was 15. He’s 64 now, and was granted a hearing because the Supreme Court has ruled that we can’t send juveniles to prison for life without parole. He’s been in prison for 45 years. I voiced similar complaints in 2014 when the same writer, John Agar, gave the same media treatment to the release of TJ Spytma, age 54, who committed a similar crime at the age of 15. Those stories and headlines generated pages of venomous comments from readers. Keep in mind that juveniles have always been treated differently at the state level. We prohibit juveniles from voting, buying cigarettes and alcohol, serving on juries, and getting married without parental consent. We, and especially the media, would do well to recognize that The Supreme Court did not make this ruling lightly. In 2012, the Court ruled that judges must consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender, banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles. Then, in 2016, this decision was made retroactive to those sentenced prior to 2012. I’m hoping for the day when TV News Directors and newspaper editors instruct their news and headline writers to consider both sides of the story, equally, with headlines that reflect same. It would be fair to create some headlines that stress rehabilitation in prison, as well as accounts of personal growth and maturity. Insisting that a person remain behind bars after 45 years for committing a crime at the age of 15 is more than favoring the rights of victims. It’s cruel and unusual punishment...the very thing the Eighth Amendment was hoping to prevent. And, slanted headlines and an imbalance of copy material do not make for fair coverage! In a time of chaos and divisiveness, I still believe that advocates for prisoners and victims are not opponents. We’re all in this together! Rehabilitation, not retribution, is the path of decency and humanity. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. I Thessalonians 5:15 And in order to make any progress, we must convince the media as well. I speak from experience: I’m on both sides!

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