Archive for October, 2015


talkin’ ’bout the weather

ep201520I received a phone call yesterday from Frank Manning, who asked me if I was prepared for Hurricane Patricia’s onslaught of Texas. I told him the path of the storm was projected to hit the state further east and south of the Big Bend, and that in the past, hurricanes from Mexico had usually petered out my the time they got this far north.

But this was a category 5 storm at the point of landfall, and purported to be “the worst in recorded history” in the Western Hemisphere. By the time it reaches Texas, however, it is projected to be just a tropical depression.

The eye of the hurricane made landfall last night at 6:15 pm CDT near Cuixmala in Jalisco state of southwest Mexico. Maximum sustained winds at landfall were estimated at 165 mph, still firmly within the Category 5 range. As Hurricane Patricia now moves over Mexico, the mountains of the country are causing the storm to quickly weaken.

Early this morning, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto delivered some very good news: The hurricane had caused less damage than what would be expected for a storm of that intensity, and the government had received no reports of deaths. Still, the hurricane is moving through a mountainous region dotted with hamlets that are at risk for dangerous mudslides and flash floods.

By 4 am this morning, the center of the hurricane was located 50 miles south-southwest of Zacatecas, Mexico, and was moving toward the north-northeast at 21 mph. Maximum sustained winds had fallen to 75 mph, making Patricia a minimal Category 1. By posting time at midday, the winds had fallen to 45 mph. In the Big Bend, we’re catching just the back-end remnants of the storm. Some areas of Texas to the east and south have reported over a foot of rain, but the effects here have been minimal.

Even if we get through this storm unscathed, there’s plenty more weather coming that can be angst-inducing. Last week The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its winter 2015-2016 outlook.

ssts-en-8sep15“A strong El Niño is in place and should exert a strong influence over our weather this winter,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “While temperature and precipitation impacts associated with El Niño are favored, El Niño is not the only player. Cold-air outbreaks and snow storms will likely occur at times this winter. However, the frequency, number and intensity of these events cannot be predicted on a seasonal timescale.”Outlook_map_temp2015_2F_300

So my hopes for a mild winter in West Texas are dashed.

As you see from the maps to the right, winter in West Texas is predicted to be cooler-and-wetter-than-usual. It looks like I may be buying more propane than normal for heating—or at least, getting no relief.

I know, depending on where you live, I might be striking you as quite the cry baby. Hell, I still listen to Minnesota Public Radio and one of my great sources Outlook_map_Precip_2015_2F_300of satisfaction is comparing our weather to theirs.

I know I really am better-off than most.

But remember: our houses are not insulated. My windows leak like a sieve when it’s windy, and their single panes of glass radiate the cold. My adobe walls are thicker but little better.

Like I’ve said before: life at Estrella Vista is one step above camping out.

Note to self: I like this a lot. I like this a lot. I could still be in Minnesota. Yesiree, I do like this a lot.



Weather Report

69° Cloudy, Windy and Rain




Hurricane Patricia in Mexico


inherited memories


Having raised an adopted son and having taken on a parental role with so many young people over the years who are biologically unrelated to me, I have spent more time than most reflecting on what these kids are missing that biological children take for granted.

I am close to my biological forebears and sometimes when thinking about my grandparents and even ancestors that I never personally met, I can “taste” snatches of what life must have been for them. Some stories told by my grandparents are invested with an emotional component that makes me feel that I had actually been there—although I know that the events of which they spoke were sometimes experienced years before I was even born.

For years I had explained this phenomenon to myself as the result of having an over-active imagination, yet there has always been a part of me that has trusted my understanding of the described situations as correct in detail and context. What justified or explained such a perspective?

Cellular memory is a theory that states the brain is not the only organ that stores memories or personality traits, that memory as a process can form in other systems in the body and can be stored in organs such as the heart. When organs are transplanted, some of the recipients have reported surprising mental developments.

A woman called Claire Sylvia received a heart and lung transplant in the 1970s from an 18-year-old male donor who had been in a motorcycle accident. None of this information was known to Sylvia, who upon waking up claimed she had a new and intense craving for beer, chicken nuggets, and green peppers—all foods she didn’t enjoy prior to the surgery. A change in food preferences is probably the most noted in heart transplant patients. Sylvia wrote a book about her experiences after learning the identity of her donor called A Change of Heart.

This theory is not new. Fiction writers were probably writing about the concept as early as the 1800’s, long before transplants of anything were even considered plausible. Perhaps it was Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac that popularized the idea for the first time. In Renard’s story a pianist looses his hands and a killer’s hands are transplanted in their place. The story ends with the killer’s hands possessing the main character to kill.

Cellular memory is one thing, and genetic memory is another. Can we inherit memory from our ancestors?

Neuroscientific research on mice suggests that some experiences can influence subsequent generations. In a study, mice trained to fear a specific smell passed on their trained aversion to their descendants, which were then extremely sensitive and fearful of the same smell, even though they had never encountered it, nor been trained to fear it.

The idea of genetic memory has been around since the late 19th century, and has been invoked to explain the racial memory postulated by Carl Jung. In Jungian psychology, racial memories are posited memories, feelings, and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a “collective unconscious.”

Scientists have tended to be skeptical of this theory in the 20th century. There is no evidence or credible scientific theory suggesting that we can inherit specific episodic memories of events that our ancestors experienced. Yet it is uncontroversial that procedural memory can be inherited—for example, babies know how to suck without being taught how to do it. This is a kind of procedural memory, and it is clearly genetic. The central, and much more controversial, question is whether episodic and other forms of memory can be inherited.

According to an article which appeared last week, the idea is experiencing a resurgence of interest.

Research from the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA. During recent tests researchers have shown once again that that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences—in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom—to subsequent generations.

According to the Telegraph, Dr. Brian Dias, from the department of psychiatry at Emory University, said: ”From a translational perspective, our results allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations.

“Such a phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential intergenerational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.” This suggests that experiences are somehow transferred from the brain into the genome, allowing them to be passed on to later generations. The researchers now hope to carry out further work to understand how the information comes to be stored on the DNA in the first place. They also want to explore whether similar effects can be seen in the genes of humans.

Professor Marcus Pembrey, a pediatric geneticist at University College London, said the work provided “compelling evidence for the biological transmission of memory. He added: “It addresses constitutional fearfulness that is highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, plus the controversial subject of transmission of the ‘memory’ of ancestral experience down the generations.

“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously, he continued. ” I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”

Professor Wolf Reik, head of epigenetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, said further work is needed before such results can be applied to humans. “These types of results are encouraging as they suggest that transgenerational inheritance exists and is mediated by epigenetics, but more careful mechanistic study of animal models is needed before extrapolating such findings to humans,” he said.

Does our DNA carry spiritual and cosmic memories passed down in genes from our ancestors? If you are as intrigued by this possibility as I am, you can access an abstract of the research here.



Weather Report

80° and Cloudy


det var helt texas


On Tuesday Dan Solomon, a writer for Texas Monthly, created a sensation here when he broke a story that said Norwegians use the word “Texas” as slang to mean “crazy.”

He says: “Usually, when the word ‘texas’—as an adjective, most often without capitalization—appears in Norwegian, the context involves the phrase, ‘det var helt texas,‘ which translates to, roughly, ‘it was totally/absolutely/completely bonkers.’ You wouldn’t call a person ‘totally texas’—it usually describes a chaotic atmosphere.”

dubyaIn interviews, representatives of the Norwegian government and other “responsible” spokespeople have explained the expression as harking back to the association that many Europeans have with Texas in the mythology of the wild west and Hollywood barroom brawls, but I suspect that it also has a lot to do with the impression sowed by famous Texas politicians such as Lyndon Baines Johnson, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry. Such is the legacy he has inherited, our current Governor, Greg Abbott, constantly has to prove that he’s not crazy—but it’s always in the background. In the opinion of some who accuse him of “pandering to idiots,” Abbott did not get off to a good start when he ordered the Texas Guard to monitor the activity of the US military during the recent Jade Helm exercises.

It is pretty unique to Texas—some would say crazy—that the Texas penal code contains an unusual provision that grants citizens the right to use deadly force to prevent someone “who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property.” This right even extends to citizens who are defending a neighbor’s property. In 2010, the law protected a Houston taco-truck owner who shot a man for stealing a tip jar containing $20.12. Also in Houston, a store clerk killed a man for shoplifting a twelve-pack of beer, and in 2008 a man from Laredo was acquitted for killing a 13-year-old boy who broke into his trailer looking for snacks and soda.

1_123125_123073_2279751_2300569_110816_ex_rickperryshoots_tn.jpg.CROP.original-originalIt is not surprising that in a state where shoplifting beer, snacks, and soda can cost you your life, it makes sense that Texas has executed more inmates than any other state—530 people since 1982. Some comedians coming out of Texas—Ron White, most notably (but I’m sure there are others)—even have jokes about death row inmates being fast-tracked.

I think it’s ironic that Texas is the place to which I came in order to keep from going crazy… and it was not a matter of finding a place where I would appear sane in comparison to some of the batshit people you meet out here.

Admittedly, I live in the least populated part of the state and keep pretty much to myself. But most of the people I know are tolerant and “Texas friendly” (which means that giving a wave to other drivers is obligatory), and that seems remarkably sane to me.



Weather Report

80° and Clear


helicopter crash

I recently spoke to a mother who told me she’d been charged and convicted of a felony because her son committed a crime while allegedly being out of the home past curfew. It is doubtful this even happened, because she received the call from police at 10:30 pm, and the curfew time is actually 11:30 pm. But she was willing to take the hit if it would bolster the chances of her son being charged as a juvenile—he was only fourteen.

Regardless of her submitting to this unfair charge, and despite having repeatedly but unsuccessfully gone to the authorities to deal with drug abuse (the proximate cause of his crime), he was nevertheless charged and convicted as an adult. The two charges together defy logic.

What is going on here? Are our courts so intent on exacting retribution that they are trying both kids and their parents for the transgressions of the child? Is it not enough that not one but two lives are ruined? Are the courts now enforcing standards and misguided practices that have now become known as “helicopter parenting”?

This is so screwed-up, I am presenting three opinions which I urge you to please consider.


Former Stanford dean explains why helicopter parenting is ruining a generation of children

by Emma Brown, The Washington Post

October 16, 2015

ct-ct-bcr-author-julie-lycott-nr-jpg-20150929Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade as a dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of taking care of themselves.

At the same time, parents were becoming more and more involved in their children’s lives. They talked to their children multiple times a day and swooped in to personally intervene anytime something difficult happened.

From her position at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children by trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment and failure and hardship.

Such “overhelping” might assist children in developing impressive resumes for college admission. But it also robs them of the chance to learn who they are, what they love and how to navigate the world, Lythcott-Haims argues in her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” she writes. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”

Lythcott-Haims is one of a growing number of writers—including Jessica Lahey (The Gift of Failure) and Jennifer Senior (All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood)—who are urging stressed-out helicopter parents to breathe and loosen their grip on their children.

“Don’t call me a parenting expert,” she said in an interview. “I’m interested in humans thriving, and it turns out that overparenting is getting in the way of that.”

She cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people. She has seen the effects up close: Lythcott-Haims lives in Palo Alto, California, a community that, following a string of suicides in the past year, has undertaken a period of soul-searching about what parents can do to stem the pressure that young people face.

Her book tour is taking her to more school auditoriums and parent groups than bookstores. She tells stories about over-involved mothers and fathers, and shares statistics about rising depression and other mental health problems in young people, that she hopes will spark change in communities around the country where helicopter parents are making themselves, and their kids, miserable.

worst_parents_001-1-21-11“Our job as a parent is to put ourselves out of a job,” she said. “We need to know that our children have the wherewithal to get up in the morning and take care of themselves.”


So are you a helicopter parent? Here are some of Lythcott-Haims’s simple tests:

1. Check your language. “If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter—as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’—it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy,” Lythcott-Haims said.

2. Examine your interactions with adults in your child’s life. “If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested,” she said. “When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”

3. Stop doing their homework. Enough said.

And how can parents help their children become self-sufficient? Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own, Lythcott-Haims said. And have them do chores. “Chores build a sense of accountability. They build life skills and a work ethic.”

Lythcott-Haims said many parents ask how they can unilaterally de-escalate in what feels like a college-admissions arms race. How can they relax about getting their child into Harvard if every other parent is going full speed ahead?

She said colleges could help tamp down on the admissions craze by going test-optional, leaving it up to students whether to submit SAT or ACT scores. And perhaps top-tier schools could agree to limit the number of such schools that each student may apply to, she said.

She urges families to think more broadly about what makes for a “good” college. There are excellent educational experiences to be had at schools that aren’t among U.S. News and World Report’s top 20, she says, and there are schools that will accept students who don’t have a perfect resume.

Parents need to see that even children who succeed in doing the impossible – getting into Stanford, or Harvard, or other elite schools – bear the scars of the admissions arms race.

“They’re breathless,” Lythcott-Haims said. “They’re brittle, they’re old before their time.”


Emma Brown, a staff writer for The Washington Post, writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.




Helicopter Parenting—It’s Worse Than You Think
Oh no…parents have now invaded graduate schools on behalf of their “children.”

by Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today

January 31, 2014

The independence of young American adults just took a great leap backwards. It was precipitated by the advance of their parents into new territory, a province once deemed innocuous enough for their offspring to navigate by themselves—getting into graduate school.

Now parents of 25-year-olds are only too eager to call graduate admissions officers and sing the virtues of their “children” or show up uninvited for campus visits intended for prospective students. Think of it as college displacement.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “Parents Now Get Themselves Involved in Graduate Admissions, Too.” The relentless violation of parental boundaries is most intense at business and law schools, professional domains where, back in the good ol’ days of, say, 1990, demonstrations of self-motivation and self-reliance by prospective students could be considered a plus.

Helicopter-parentsAdults, of course, rationalize their intrusive behavior by pointing out that they’re the ones paying the bills, so they are entitled to know what’s going on with their adult children. But commandeer the process? The money rationale rings awfully hollow. Parents have long paid the way for their offspring, usually with the clear aim of seeing that the kiddies acquire the knowledge and skills that support independence. Now, parents counter, costs are so great that schooling is an investment, as if some magical amount of money trips a switch in their brain that says it’s OK for them to rob their kids of any degree ……………………………………………………………………………………. of self-sufficiency.

Even if parents don’t know where to draw a line, colleges should. They are, after all, in the business of promoting the development of young adults. Instead, they see an opportunity for their own survival, and some are going so far as to actually cultivate parental invasiveness. So many parents now show up for campus visits on admitted-student days that the University of Texas law school in Austin has quadrupled the number of such days it holds. An administrator at another graduate school advises that parents be looked on not as overzealous but as trusted partners and “benefactors,” and that wooing parents can be the pipeline to more applicants.

“It’s so sad,” observes psychologist Michael Ungar, who heads the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University and is a fellow PT blogger. “The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks. I can fully understand coaching a child on how to fill in applications and how to deal with admissions officers. But doing that for the child is misguided and short-sighted. This is not a strategy for long-term well-being. It is always better to empower children to make good choices for themselves rather than having them remain dependent on parents to sort out problems for them.”

The real motivations of parents are probably multiple. Without question, they are anxious about the future success of their kids and think that clearing every path for them, including taking over tasks, will smooth the way to achievement. Many parents want to continue the kinds of connection they had when their kids were younger; it feeds the illusion that the adults aren’t aging after all, and it keeps the adults from having to carve new roles for their own post-parenting lives. There are studies showing that some parents are especially needy emotionally, expecting their children to supply the closeness missing from from their marriages or their own social life. However you slice it, parents are putting their own emotional needs ahead of the developmental needs of their children.

The ultimate outcome of such behavior is not good. Only a few studies have examined the effects of helicopter parenting. It is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, at least on a large scale (there have always been overbearing parents, but they were a rarity, and we used to laugh at them). It takes time to realize that something fundamental in parenting has shifted and time for scientists to suspect that it may cause problems, and more time for them to pinpoint and define the elements of intrusive parenting so that they can then study its effects. That is just now happening. Leading the charge is Chris Segrin of the University of Arizona, along with Michelle Givertz of Cal State at Chico and Neil Montgomery of Keene State College.

“The over part of overparenting,” the researchers observe in a recent study, “is a reference to excessive levels of involvement, control, and problem solving dispatched seeming in the service of the child’s well-being.” The big surprise of one of their recent studies overturns the conventional wisdom that parents always act with the good intentions and positive regard for a child’s well-being.

Au contraire, the researchers find, the inappropriate, anxiety-driven parenting tactics not only compromise children’s autonomy, mastery, and personal growth, they often reflect a critical attitude by parents, who praise their children when they do well but withdraw affection, subtly or overtly, when they don’t bring home that A. It’s known in the psych biz as “parental conditional regard.” At least that’s how children perceive it. And that’s what matters: The threat of criticism has corrosive effects on attitudes toward parents and self-development, and contaminates relationship with others. “Emotional overinvolvement and criticism often go hand in hand in family relationships,” explain the researchers.

This is just the beginning. Now that there are validated criteria defining overparenting, other researchers can study its effects. In the meantime, the latest study by Chris Segrin and colleagues shows that overparenting young adults breeds narcissim and poor coping skiils. And having ineffective coping skills amplifies anxiety and stress.

To say that the new studies are significant is an understatement. They demonstrate how those who mean only the best for their kids can wind up bringing out the worst in them.


Hara Estroff Marano is an editor-at-large at Psychology Today and writes the advice column.



Weather Report

90° and Clear, Rain Overnight


no stinking badges

Prosecutors who bend and break the rules to win a conviction almost never face any punishment. But even given lax controls nationwide, the blatant and systemic misconduct in the Orange County CA district attorney’s office stands out. In a scheme that may go back as far as 30 years, prosecutors and the county sheriff’s department have elicited illegal jailhouse confessions, failed to turn over evidence that is favorable to defendants, and lied repeatedly in court about what they did.

These unconstitutional abuses are all the more troubling because Orange County is not some corrupt backwater with one rogue prosecutor. With more than three million residents, the county itself is more populous than nearly half the states in the country. Its district attorney’s office employs 250 prosecutors.

30wed2web-master315In March, county Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals took the extraordinary step of ejecting the entire county DA’s office—all 250 prosecutors—from a high-profile mass murder case after allegations of widespread misconduct surfaced. Goethals cited misleading or false testimony from sheriff’s deputies about jailhouse informants and the failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence. He said prosecutors couldn’t ensure a fair trial in the penalty phase of the trial of a confessed mass murderer.

The case involved a 2011 mass shooting in which eight people were killed by a man named Scott Dekraai. Dekraai pleaded guilty in 2014, and a jury will consider whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. In early 2014, Dekraai’s public defender, Fred Ospino, filed a 505-page motion detailing illegal and unconstitutional acts by prosecutors and the sheriff’s department, arguing that this record should take the death penalty off the table. Among other things, the defense argued, deputies intentionally placed informants in cells next to defendants facing trial, including Dekraai, and hid that fact.

The informants, some of whom faced life sentences for their own crimes, were promised reduced sentences or cash payouts in exchange for drawing out confessions or other incriminating evidence from the defendants. This practice is prohibited once someone has been charged with a crime. Even when using an informant is allowed, defendants and judges must be told of the arrangement. That did not happen in Orange County. As Dekraai’s defense lawyer discovered, the sheriff’s department kept secret a computer file showing where jailhouse informants were placed that went back decades. The prosecutor’s office kept separate files of data on informants and their deals. Some of the informants have helped law enforcement repeatedly in exchange for favors, a fact that is highly relevant in weighing their credibility.

The debacle in Orange County is notable for its sheer size and impact—already, some murder convictions have been thrown out while other prosecutions have fallen apart—but such misconduct is an all-too-familiar scenario when prosecutors value winning above justice. Alex Kozinski, a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco, has written that the withholding of exculpatory evidence has reached “epidemic” levels, and that the only way to stop it is for judges to hold prosecutors accountable.

nle5q8-b88359422zOrange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has admitted in past interviews that his prosecutors made some mistakes in handing over evidence and using informants, but claimed that none had done so intentionally. Oh sure.

Rackauckas joined the DA’s office in 1972 as a deputy district attorney. Over the next 15 years, he conducted over 40 homicide jury trials and over 100 felony jury trials including rape, robbery, arson, assault, burglary, fraud, narcotics, and child molestation. Rackauckas is known as “a tough, no-nonsense DA” and was elected DA in 1998. He has since been re-elected four times: in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014.

So he’s had ample time to set the tone for his administration, which clearly values winning over justice.

nue5g5-b88507671zIn September Rackauckas got one of his underlings to fall on his sword for the systemic abuses. Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen, once a rising star in gang enforcement and Mexican Mafia prosecutions, resigned effective September 18. Petersen was the deputy district attorney who prosecuted three of the four criminal cases that fell apart because of the misuse of jailhouse informants and the withholding of evidence. He starts a new job this month as an assistant US attorney in Nebraska. Will the Rackauckas ethic spread with him?

Two weeks ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law, prompted by the Orange County scandal, that cracks down on prosecutors who willfully withhold evidence from defense attorneys and courts.

The law also requires judges to report offending prosecutors to the state bar, which licenses attorneys. The bill was not widely supported by Orange County legislators, though DA Rackauckas has said he supported it. The legislation was sponsored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, a professor at San Diego State University whose late husband was a judge.

She said the legislation is important because it forces judges to hold prosecutors accountable. “I’ve always had as a priority this whole issue of social justice,” Weber said. “When it doesn’t work, it has the tendency to do a lot of harm.”

Rackauckas makes a lot of the fact that his maternal grandparents immigrated from Sonora, Mexico and that he spoke Spanish for the first three years of his life. I think this is does a disservice to Hispanic people everywhere. I am reminded that Rackauckas seems to have the same cavalier attitude to the law as the bandito “Gold Hat” in the film, The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

The character played by Humphrey Bogart asks: “If you are the police, where are your badges?”

Gold Hat responds sneeringly: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”



stinkng badge.


Weather Report

71° and Cloudy


jlc in dc

jlc14z-6001013Mark Plaisance, the Louisiana public defender who argued the case, Montgomery v. Lousiana Tuesday at the US Supreme Court, with Marsha Levick, cocounsel on the case and Juvenile Law Center co-founder. (Marie Yeager photo)


At 40, Juvenile Law Center’s biggest case yet: Seeking second chance for juvenile lifers
by Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 14, 2015

Marsha Levick, cofounder of the Juvenile Law Center in Center City, greeted a crush of reporters outside the US Supreme Court on Tuesday morning with hope—and a shrug.

She was there for arguments in Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case that could determine whether 500 Pennsylvania inmates—those who were sentenced as juveniles to life without possibility of parole—will die in prison or have a chance at release. It could go either way, Levick said.

The court ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that automatic life-without-parole sentencing guidelines for juveniles were cruel and unusual and violated the Eighth Amendment. Ten states applied that retroactively; others, including Pennsylvania, did not. The Montgomery case could determine whether Miller will offer relief for inmates whose convictions are final.

The arguments focused heavily on whether the court even had authority to hear the case. Still, Levick, cocounsel for Henry Montgomery, convicted of a fatal shooting at age 17 in 1963, was cautiously optimistic.

“The justices were concerned about jurisdiction,” she told reporters. “But there seemed to be a strong sentiment among several justices that there is something inherently wrong about not applying an Eighth Amendment rule retroactively.”

Then, Levick and a couple dozen colleagues and supporters piled into a bus bound for Philadelphia, hoping to make it through I-95 traffic in time for their 40th anniversary gala, which had been planned long before the court scheduled its arguments.

It was a hectic but fitting way for the Juvenile Law Center to mark four decades of helping transform the way the American legal system treats children.

Founded on a shoestring by four new Temple Law graduates in 1975, JLC has been involved in a string of Supreme Court cases that have rolled back some of the harshest sentences for juveniles across the country. The firm has also worked on statewide juvenile-justice and child welfare reforms, and it’s taken on some of the most troubling cases around the region, including the “Kids for Cash” scandal in Luzerne County and harsh solitary confinement practices in New Jersey. (JLC filed an amicus brief in Paul Henry Gingerich’s appeal, and has been cocounsel in every appeal for Jordan Brown.)

“They’ve been at the forefront of every major juvenile justice issue for decades,” said Wallace Mlyniec, senior counsel and former director of Georgetown’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. “You see their fingerprints everywhere – not just in Pennsylvania, where they have done wonders for children all throughout the state. They’ve replicated a lot of that work throughout the country.”

JLC was the first nonprofit public-interest law center focused on children in the country when it started out in borrowed space in a cardiologist’s office.

The timing was right.

“We helped create a field,” said Bob Schwartz, executive director of the law center.

The Supreme Court had only recently, in 1967, ruled that kids, like adults, had a right to counsel in delinquency proceedings, and legal services organizations hadn’t caught up. The Defender Association of Philadelphia didn’t yet have a child advocate unit.

Funding was a challenge. “In our first seven years, we ran out of money three times and went on unemployment,” Schwartz said.

But the need was there: JLC was flooded with referrals, from Philadelphia and around the country.

At first, it tried to make a difference one kid at a time. Later, it refocused on systemic change. That includes pushing back against the harshest punishments for juvenile offenders—filing briefs in cases that led to bans on the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole in non-homicide cases.

And, in 2012, it filed a brief in Miller v. Alabama. When Montgomery came up, it contacted the lead attorney to offer support once again. Instead, it was asked to serve as cocounsel.

Most of the 500 Pennsylvania lifers affected, including 292 from Philadelphia, have filed motions seeking relief under Miller, and all of those are still waiting.

At Graterford state prison, dozens of men sentenced to life for murders they committed as teenagers are watching the Montgomery case anxiously, said Jorge Cintron Jr., a lifer 20 years into his sentence.

He doesn’t hold out hope for commutation, as only six life sentences have been commuted during his time in prison. But many of the men haven’t given up, he said, educating themselves and seeking entry into training programs, many of which are closed to lifers.

Cintron is in school to be a barber: His dream, if the courts grant him a second chance, is to start a school where he can train kids in haircutting who would otherwise be dealing drugs.

Whatever the decision in Montgomery, more cases are in the pipeline. One of those, Levick hopes, could end mandatory sentencing for kids for good.

In the meantime, there is still work to be done on the local level.

One of the most notable cases JLC took on in Pennsylvania began with a phone call from Laurene Transue in 2007. Her 15-year-old daughter, who had no record, had been sent to juvenile placement for creating an insulting MySpace page.

Transue, of White Haven PA, contacted every government and nonprofit agency she could think of.

“Everyone else I called said, ‘There’s no hope. Your kid’s in the system, and that’s the way it’s going to be,’ ” Transue said. “JLC gave me hope.”

Transue’s daughter, Hillary, was the first of 2,400 kids JLC has helped overcome unfair sentences in Luzerne County, where judges were taking kickbacks to send juveniles to a private placement facility.

And, in 2010, when Sandra Simkins, director of Rutgers University’s Children’s Justice Clinic, discovered that New Jersey juvenile facilities were holding kids in solitary confinement for weeks at a time, she also looked to JLC. She contacted it after meeting Troy, a 16-year-old who had been in solitary for more than six months and who was covered in self-mutilation scars.

“When we found Troy, Marsha’s the one I called. She’s the one everyone calls,” Simkins said. With pro bono help from Dechert L.L.P., JLC won a $400,000 settlement for Troy and another child. The settlement helped draw so much attention that, in August, New Jersey enacted a series of juvenile justice reforms, including drastically reduced limits on solitary confinement.

It’s one of many victories JLC was celebrating at the Hyatt at the Bellevue on Tuesday night. The event was also a sort of retirement party for Schwartz, who is stepping down.

Under JLC’s new leader, Susan Mangold, the firm will continue to seek juvenile-justice reforms, to push for an end to juvenile solitary confinement, demand better protection for juvenile records, and advocate for child welfare reforms.

“There’s a mind-set about how we charge people, how we punish people, and what we do when they come out. Right now, it’s more forgiving than it has been in decades,” Levick said. “We see one of our jobs here as frankly to maximize this moment.”


Samantha Melamed is a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.



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70° and Clear


light blight

Street-Light-Light-PollutionLast night one of my friends from Minneapolis broadcasted an email asking for direction to a close-to-home entity offering relief to the problem of nighttime light pollution: “There’s gotta be some support and resistance to the rampant abomination of artless, unnecessary illumination turning good night into fake day. Newly-installed back entry lighting for my building causes the area to appear like a goddamn prison yard.”
Sorry to say this, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope of finding such an organization locally.
This is the issue that defeated me and, more than anything, caused me to abandon my home in Minnesota and create a new life in West Texas, which reputedly has the darkest nighttime skies in the lower 48 states.
light shieldsOh, I tried. I didn’t give up without a fight. The first time my elderly neighbors installed a “security light” in their back yard, illuminating all the junk they wanted to protect from imagined vandals and thieves. It was an unshielded lamp, installed on a tall pole and owned by the power company, which flooded my back yard with ugly, unwanted light.
There is a term for this: “light trespass.”
After damaging good-neighbor relations, I got the power company to install lighting shields that changed the omnidirectional lamp into more of a downlight, but the offending light still entered my back yard. Just a little less of it.
Then, in connection with the construction of a biking and pedestrian “commuting trail,” I attempted to get our city’s public works department to install nighttime lighting that would not obliterate a biker’s or pedestrian’s night vision. (It takes one’s eyes at least 20 minutes after experiencing full light to adjust to, and be able to see in, the darkness.) I had visions of red footlights which would be activated, section-by-section, by motion sensors. I had imagined red lights such as are installed in photographic darkrooms, in the conning towers of submarines, and in some automobile dashboards. The boys in the public works department had apparently only known of the “red light” districts which describe a city’s most disreputable sections—or at least that is the impression created by their initial jokes. Anyway, they said, footlights were out of the question. Any nighttime lighting would have to be positioned high-up, out of the reach of vandals. To appease me (because I had a good deal of influence at the time), they conducted some half-hearted experiments in a public works yard by placing red gels within standard street lamps that were so unsuccessful that even I would admit their efforts were a bust.
Finally, the state highway department installed lighting on a bridge that adjoined the nature park I had spent so many years creating, and the whole area was washed in light that made the formerly beautiful place look more like a shopping center parking lot. It was the straw that broke the back, and I decided to get the hell out of that place. It would only get worse—and it has. My last visit to Minneapolis and my park was so dispiriting, I wanted nothing to do with the city anymore.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that streetlights don’t prevent accidents or crime, but do cost a lot of money. The researchers looked at data on road traffic collisions and crime in 62 local authorities in England and Wales and found that lighting had no effect, whether authorities had turned them off completely, dimmed them, turned them off at certain hours, or substituted low-power LED lamps.

According to a 2011 study of London street lighting and crime, there is “no good evidence that increased lighting reduces total crime.” A 1997 National Institute of Justice study concluded, “We can have very little confidence that improved lighting prevents crime.” The truth is bad outdoor lighting can decrease safety by making victims and property easier to see. A Chicago Alley Lighting Project showed a correlation between brightly lit alleyways and increased crime. In fact, most property crime occurs in the light of the day. And some crimes like vandalism and graffiti actually thrive on night lighting.

A dark sky does not necessarily mean a dark ground. Smart lighting that directs light where and when it is needed creates a balance between safety and starlight.

Map_MEMI_4_PollutionPublic officials in some states are beginning to awaken to the problem, but it seems to be too little too late. As my experience with Minneapolis Public Works indicates, this is an issue that is plagued by ignorance and an unwarranted confidence in “common knowledge.” We over-light every part of our nighttime environment, even the interiors of our homes. There is some evidence to suggest that the blue-spectrum light of our televisions and computers can disrupt people’s sleep patterns.

There’s even evidence to suggest that blue light contributes to some aspects of mental health dysfunction.

I’m probably the only person you know who still uses six or seven liters of lamp oil every week. When I lived in Minneapolis, I had rheostats installed on every electric light in the house. But I’m weird. I like to see the stars at night.


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74° and Clear