Currently there are about 2.3 million people incarcerated in American prisons. That number includes state, federal and local jails. Of that number there are approximately 2,230 people serving life sentences from crimes committed as juveniles. The current debate among politicians is criminal justice reform. As it concerns juvenile lifers the question, around reform, is how much time is enough time.
How much time is enough time for someone to serve in prison for an offense committed before the human brain is fully developed? A National Institute of Health study proposes that the part of the brain that restrains risky behavior. and thinking skills is not fully developed until the age of 25. Jay Giedd, the psychiatrist leading the study, told MSNBC earlier this year that this finding came as a surprise to him because he used to think that the brain was fully developed at the age of 18. In all fairness to Dr. Giedd most people have the same opinion, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and other critical figures involved in the criminal justice process.
This issue is such a hot topic that Newt Gingrich urged Governor Jerry Brown to sign California’s Senate Bill 9, “The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act”, which authorizes resentencing opportunities for juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment. Mr. Gingrich in an op-ed piece written with Pat Nolan quoted,
“We did some dumb things as teenagers that might have caused a lot of harm. You probably did, too. Gratefully, we didn’t harm anyone too badly, but we cringe about how clueless we were about the possible consequences to what we did. Teenagers often don’t make very good decisions. Our laws take this into account in many ways. We don’t let young people drink until they are 21, and they cannot sign contracts, vote or serve on juries until they are 18. But there is one area in which we ignore teens, youth and impulsiveness: our criminal laws. Our laws often ignore the difference between adult and teens. and some youngsters are sentenced to life in prison. Should those youngsters remain in prison for something they did when they were so young? Wouldn’t it be better to re-evaluate them after serving a long stretch in prison and consider whether they have matured and improved themselves?”
In October 1993, at the age of 17, I committed an offense I deeply regret. I was involved in a crime where someone lost their life. An act committed under the influence of alcohol. An act not intended, nor excusable, and deeply regretted. As a result I was charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced as an adult. I was given a sentence of 20 years to life. Due to the seriousness of the offense I was fully aware that I was going away to prison for a very long time. I made a bad choice and justice had to be served. As of now I have been incarcerated for 23 years, three years longer than the twenty years the judge sentenced me to. How did this happen may be the question you are asking. I will get to that shortly.
When I first arrived at the state prison I immediately began working towards seeking knowledge. I knew that education was going to be the thing that would help me get through this sentence. I had, and have, a thirst for knowledge and love the process of seeking it. After I obtained my GED I began the UDC prison college program. It was my goal to graduate with a BA in Urban Studies. (The current national average recidivism rate is 0.4% for those that are released with at least an AA degree; however, it is 70%, at the national level for those released without sufficient education.) Unfortunately, the program was cut and I was not able to complete my studies. That did not stop me from pursuing other educational goals.
Here is a list of some of my achievements over the last 23 years:
UDC (college program)
Georgetown University (college program)
I am a certified and Licensed Barber
I am a certified instructor of basic English
I completed the BOP’s Life Connection Program, an 18 month, 1588, therapeutic residential community program
I have completed several drug courses, anger management and family courses
I learned (self taught) fluent Spanish and Arabic. My job for many years has been teaching Spanish GED and ESL
I have taken computers, Microsoft Office classes, and I am computer literate
I and a certified teachers aide. Through the Department of Labor I completed a 4000 hour course that allows me to serve as a teachers aide
I have taken building trades that required over 500 hours to complete. Also Residential Construction Electrical Principals that required 300 hours to complete
I have been the lead facilitator for several programs: Thinking for a Change, Quality of Life, Victim impact (taught in conjunction with Dr. Tony Gaskew, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Pittsburgh). My favorite course was Concerned Offenders for Youth Awareness (COYA). COYA was a program where I worked with at-risk youth through the Maricopa County Youth Probation Department, in Phoenix Az. They were brought inside the prison were we were able to mentor them.
I have certification as a Drug and Alcohol Abuse technician
I have recently completed two major courses. One as a Peer Recovery Advocate, someone who works with mental health patients that may struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. The other course I completed through Adams State College is Victim Advocacy. Learning these skill allow me to work with victims of crimes and other abuse.
Most importantly, I have skills and training as a certified wellness and personal development Life Coach. It was a goal of mine to bring the concept of Life Coaching to a prison I was in. I was able to do that through a program sponsored by the Institute for Life Coach Training founded by Dr.Patrick Williams, who also became my coach mentor, friend and advocate. This program, in FCI McKean, has graduated over 90 inmates. Inmates who, upon release, can seek employment, or further their coaching skills. To list the recommendations I have would take up a lot of space and time. But, those people include Senators, an ex-Captain of the KCPD, Chaplains, College Professors, Wardens, and the list goes on.
In 2010 I had an initial parole hearing. At that hearing I was parole eligible but due to the nature of the offense I was recommended a 1 year set of until my next hearing. The final decision comes from the US Parole Commissioners. They set me off for 3 years. In 2013 I had a rehearing and was recommended parole. The USPC Commissioners sent back a decision to set me off 5 more years. Yes, I was given more time the second time at the second hearing while it was noted I was a better candidate for parole at the re-hearing. At the second hearing my staff representative was the Associate Warden of Programs. Not to mention the employment opportunities I had available, housing, community ties and support, along with money saved. But here I sit.
Why am I explaining all of this? Because as my family and I try to raise $20,000 for an attorney to represent me against the parole board. I need your help. I feel that if I am going to ask for you help and support that you know exactly what and who you are supporting. I want you to feel that your donations are being contributed to a worthy cause.
What is the cause? Yes, it has to do with me but it also address a bigger issue, and answers the big question. How much time is a enough time for a person who committed their offense as a juvenile to serve? How much rehabilitation is needed to prove to the parole board that a person is ready for society.
I need this lawyer because she is going to help gather other experts to show that I am not the same 17 year old kid I was 23 years ago. The board’s reason to deny me parole; I have the same propensity to commit crime, and that I am a danger to public safety, based on my behavior at the age of 17. Regardless of what I have achieved during my incarceration, my record of the last 23 years of my adult life. Despite the fact that experts have determined that most people outgrow crime around the ages of 35 and 40. What I have presented to them is not enough so I have to go the extra mile. I need your help to get there.
After reading this piece. What do you think? Do you think 23 years is enough time to serve for an offense committed at a time when the brain is not fully developed. Do you think, that after reading some of my achievements during my incarceration show, I am ready to return to society and be productive? If you do please donate to this cause.
Donate whatever you can. Post this story and pass it on to your friends, family and colleagues. Your donations and generosity will not go unnoticed and will be appreciated. I am ready for society. I am ready to be productive and live life as a productive upstanding and law-abiding citizen. I need your help to make that happen. So please help by donating, any which way you can. All you have to do is go to this link, Talib M. Shakir Legal Defense Fund, and make that donations. You will not regret it.
Thank for your help and participation!