Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth Celebrates 25th Anniversary 6/23/17

Priorities highlighted at the ceremony included LGBTQ youth who are homeless or system-involved, sexual health, and juvenile and criminal justice.  Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) said at the gathering, “Unfortunately, the disparities that persist for LGBTQ youth are simply unacceptable in 2017. We can do better in Massachusetts. State policymakers must work closely with advocates and community members to close the gaps and celebrate queer young people for who they are.”

Read more here.


Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs racial justice bill into law 5/31/17

Gov. Scott signed H.308 into law, enabling a 13-person advisory panel to examine issues of racial justice within Vermont’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. The bill was strongly supported by the Vermont chapter of the ACLU.

Read more here.


Mass. Judiciary Committee holds a public hearing on bills dealing with juvenile and criminal justice reform 6/5/17

Advocates across the state are pushing lawmakers to end mandatory minimums, reform records sealing procedures, and enact programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

Read more here.


Boston Herald Opinion: Justice system failing young people 6/3/17

A Massachusetts workgroup composed of sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, and juvenile justice officials has examined some possible pathways toward juvenile justice reform. Much like the New York Times Opinion below, they have concluded that including young adults up to age 21 in the juvenile justice system is one good place to start.

Read more here.


New York Times Opinion: Don’t Treat Young Adults as Teenagers 4/29/16

A new study published this year raises questions about the wisdom of expanding the jurisdiction of the juvenile system to include young adults up to the age of 21. The research, taken alongside a number of policy concerns, suggests that young adults should be treated as a special category of offenders in the adult justice system.

Read the opinion piece in full here.


Connecticut Child Advocate criticizes DCF treatment of transgender teen ‘Jane Doe’

HARTFORD, CT (July 23, 2014)>> The state Office of Child Advocate criticized state child welfare officials Wednesday for their handling of a transgender girl held at a Connecticut detention center for boys on accusations she fought with other girls at a psychiatric center.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan’s office called the July 13 announcement by the Department of Children and Families about the fight the previous day involving the 16-year-old, identified as Jane Doe, and four other girls a “public shaming.”juvenile-and-attorney

“The public shaming of Jane Doe a victim of significant abuse and neglect is also inexplicable in light of the fact that the July 12 incident involved four girls, all of whom were restrained, all of whom were described in DCF records as hitting each other and staff,” the child advocate’s office said in a news release.

One of the girls was restrained on five occasions during the same night and was placed in handcuffs and other restraints “long after” the incident ended, the advocate’s office said. No transfers were announced for any of the other girls involved in the incident, it said.

“DCF’s rush to publicize a fraction of an incident is difficult to reconcile with its parental role,” the advocate’s office said. It said DCF may have a conflict of interest as guardian for the girl and as a systems manager for juvenile services.

In an email response to the criticism, DCF denied any conflict, “actual or apparent.” The agency said its decision to release a statement when the girl was moved to the boys’ detention center “was driven by the extensive news coverage she has received over the past several months.”

The agency said the July 12 incident is being investigated. According to a preliminary review, the teen ripped the sprinkler head from a unit, causing flooding and extensive damage, officials said. DCF said that was when it decided to remove her from the premises.

“The girls in the program deserve to be safe and to receive quality therapeutic treatment and education that meet their needs,” DCF said in a statement. “Our staff are committed to providing those services, and the administration is committed to providing the resources and quality improvement structure and process to support it.”

The teenager, who was born a male and identifies as a female, was initially kept at an adult prison after DCF said she was involved in other assaults at a private treatment center and a judicial branch detention center.

The child advocate’s office said the teen’s life has been marked by years of institutional or hospital care, “moving between facilities, the state psychiatric hospital for children, local emergency departments, juvenile detention and out-of-state programs.” It said she moved at least 12 times in the last four years.

In the last seven months, she has switched therapists at least five times, the agency said.

The girl was recently transferred from the DCF-run Connecticut Juvenile Training School’s unit for girls to a facility for boys, where she is being kept in isolation. Jane Doe was previously held in isolation at the state’s women’s prison in Niantic. She was sent there after being accused of assault.

Jane Doe was moved from Niantic following an outcry from her lawyer and civil rights activists.

Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said programs helping children will have to be more transparent.

“It’s been disturbing since the beginning,” Anderson said of the Jane Doe case. “She hasn’t been treated fairly.”

The child advocate’s office called attention to the fact that the Jane Doe case is not an anomaly in the DCF system.

“Records also reveal over 200 incidents in the last 13 weeks where staff at the boys’ or girls’ units reported using physical or mechanical restraint, including handcuffs, to control youth within the facility,” the child advocate’s office said, adding, “The fact that many youth move through residential and correctional facilities without being ‘better’ is not a sign of their incorrigibility. Rather, it is consistent with the evidence that long-term institutional care, particularly without consistent support from a nurturing family or caregiver, does not work.”

Sandra Staub, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said in a prepared statement that, “The Office of the Child Advocate has demolished the fiction that Jane Doe is uniquely dangerous or violent and has uncovered facts proving she has been a victim of discrimination by her guardian, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.”

Staub said the ACLU “will continue to support the efforts of Jane’s lawyers in court to protect her from DCF, which has proven that it can’t be trusted to act in her best interest.”

-AP Staff, New Haven Registrar

‘Jane’ Didn’t Get the Help She Needed

When the Juvenile Justice System Isn’t the Answer

HARTFORD, CT (June 28, 2014) >> IF you want to understand just how miserable a childhood can be, 16 year-old “Jane Doe” is a good place to start.

That’s what the authorities in Connecticut call her to protect her identity. She was removed a few days ago from an adult prison where she had been confined by herself for two months — not as punishment but because the state said it had nowhere else to put her that would be safe.

Now Jane is in a girls’ detention center in Middletown, Conn. She’s one of almost 70,000 American youths incarcerated on any given day — and a reminder of how ineffective our programs for troubled children are.

Like many detained kids, Jane has been through hell. Because her father was in prison and her mother was a drug abuser, she was raised by relatives. At age 8, she says in an affidavit provided to the courts, her cousin began to rape her anally, causing her to lose control of her bowels.

“My grandfather made me sleep outside on the porch for two days because I couldn’t hold my stool and had an accident,” she recounts. “He told me, ‘only animals do that,’ and if I didn’t stop he would treat me like one.”

A history of abuse is common for troubled kids. One study of 2,500 people sentenced to life imprisonment while juveniles found that almost half had been physically abused. Among girls, 77 percent reported sexual abuse.

More than 60 percent of incarcerated youths in America are confined for nonviolent offenses. Two-thirds are children of color.

Jane, who is Hispanic, seems to have had little help as a young child, when social services are most effective. But at 12, she says in the affidavit, she was placed by state authorities in a school for troubled youths. Even after coming under state supervision, she recounts repeated sexual abuse by staff, relatives and other youths.

Jane was particularly vulnerable because she is transgender. She was born male but identifies as female.

At 15, Jane was living on the streets. A pimp sold her for sex, she says; she eventually escaped but continued to sell sex herself.

“All I wanted was someone to tell me they loved me, that everything would be all right,” she says in the affidavit. “But that never happened.”

She was periodically violent to staff and girls in the youth centers she was sent to, court documents show. Connecticut cited that history of violence, and a need to protect others, in isolating Jane in an adult prison beginning in April. “It was devastating for her,” says her lawyer, Aaron J. Romano. (Connecticut officials deny that it was so grim and say that she had educational opportunities.)

Now that Jane is out of prison and in youth detention, the aim is to provide her care that, both her advocates and the state say, would ideally lead to placement in a loving foster-care family, with outside support to help the transition.

“We’re already looking for an appropriate foster family,” Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, told me.

Through her lawyer, Jane answered questions I sent to her. She was scornful of the juvenile justice system: “It doesn’t work,” she said flatly. But she spoke poignantly of her desire to become a nurse and a mentor for other transgender children. “I would love to be a role model for young trans kids,” she said.

The larger lesson is the way we systematically over-rely on the criminal justice toolbox to deal with youths, rather than on social services or education. The United States incarcerates children at a rate that is 10 or 20 times higher than in some other industrial countries.

A generation ago, perhaps it was plausible that the shock of juvenile detention would scare a kid back to the straight-and-narrow path. Now that’s not tenable. Robust research shows that incarcerating kids often just turns them into career criminals.

The cost of detaining a youth is about $100,000 a year. And one study found that the cost to society of a high-risk 14-year-old who doesn’t straighten out is at least $3.2 million over his lifetime.

Thus it would be economically efficient, as well as humane, to invest in interventions from the beginning of life that reduce delinquency. That means home visitation to at-risk families, lead abatement, early education, and schools for low-income children that are as good as those for the middle class.

As a result partly of costs, youth detention rates are dropping since peaking in about 1995. But we still fail systematically to invest adequately in children like Jane, who is a reminder that it’s much easier to help a child at 6 than at 16.

“Everyone thinks I am some kind of wild animal,” she wrote despairingly from prison last month. “If this is helping me, then I’m all set with being helped.”

           -Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Senate Votes on Parole for Juvenile Lifers

BOSTON, MA (July 8, 2014) — Massachusetts senators on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to become eligible for parole after serving between 20 and 30 years in prison.

The measure passed on a 37-2 vote after amendments that sought a higher minimum parole threshold were defeated, some by slim margins. It will have to be reconciled with a slightly different House version that sets parole eligibility at 20-25 years for most juvenile lifers, and 25-30 years in cases with extreme cruelty or atrocity.

The Senate bill represented the latest effort by lawmakers to reconcile Massachusetts law with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the state’s highest court that found mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles.

The state, which has no death penalty, has in the past mandated life without parole for all first-degree murder convictions regardless of age. Juveniles age 14 or older can be tried for murder as adults.thinking teen - pixabay

Under the bill, judges must give inmates convicted of first-degree murder before their 18th birthday a chance to go before the state parole board no sooner than 20 years, but not longer than 30 years into their sentences.

Senators, on a 23-16 vote, defeated an amendment proposed by Republican leader Bruce Tarr that would have required 35 years to be served before parole eligibility. A later amendment calling for a 25-year threshold was rejected on an even narrower 20-19 margin in a chamber where Democrats hold an overwhelming majority and close votes are relatively unusual.

‘‘We literally hold the direction of lives in our hands, we hold public safety in our hands, and we hold the integrity of the judicial and criminal justice systems in our hands,’’ Tarr said during the debate.

Senators did back one amendment that would require juveniles convicted of murder with extreme cruelty or atrocity to serve the full 30 years before parole eligibility, a compromise which may have convinced Tarr and other lawmakers to support the bill on the final vote.

Currently, more than 60 inmates in Massachusetts are serving first-degree murder sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. The parole board has begun reviewing their cases, but the bill would not be retroactive to apply to them.

Sen. William Brownsberger, a Watertown Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, noted the strong opinions on both sides of the issue and said the 20-30 range represented a middle ground.

‘‘People who are looking at this from both perspectives, (those) who think this bill is too harsh and those who think it is too lenient, will recognize that there is a great diversity of views … and that we have made a great effort to hear that range of views,’’ Brownsberger said.

Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry, both Boston Democrats, voted against the bill after saying they preferred a lesser period for parole eligibility.

Joshua Dohan, youth advocacy director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said his organization also supported a lower threshold but praised lawmakers for including additional rehabilitative services in prison.

– Bob Salsberg,

Would You Let This Man Go Free?

BOSTON, MA (July 2014) >> As a teenager, Greg Diatchenko was convicted of murder and given the mandatory sentence: life without parole. Now science, and the courts, could give him another chance.

Wearing a crisply pressed blue button-down and jeans, Greg Diatchenko could be a suburban dad arriving for a parent-teacher conference. The 50-year-old murderer walks into a sunny conference room at the medium-security state prison in Norfolk, his cheeks freshly shaven, his glasses silver, his eyes blue-green. It’s a warm day in April, and he awkwardly scans to the scrum of people waiting there for him—the prison’s press director, a correctional officer, his lawyer, me—to figure out where to sit. When he shakes my hand, his palms are callused, his fingernails trimmed to the quick. I know he’s nervous, because his lawyer told me. But he just seems thoughtful, reflective, sincere.

Diatchenko’s lawyer has serious reservations about his speaking with a journalist. But Diatchenko hopes his story can help the other 62 Massachusetts inmates who, like him, were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were still too young to vote. His lawyer sits in on our 90-minute conversation, occasionally shutting down certain avenues of questioning, and Diatchenko heeds his advice not to talk about the brutal crime that landed him in here.

He learned to listen to his lawyer the hard way: Thirty-three years ago, as a teenager, Diatchenko took the advice of his drinking buddies instead of his attorney. He’d been caught stabbing a man to death, and in the run-up to his trial, the prosecutor made him an offer: plead guilty to second-degree murder and avoid the almost-certain conviction at trial of first-degree murder. Given the strength of the evidence against him, it was like a gift. But Diatchenko, stupid and 17, turned it down. You can do better than that, his friends told him.

He showed up drunk to his trial with the misguided expectation that his lawyer could get him a lesser sentence. Even now Diatchenko struggles to explain what he was thinking. “I was trying to bide my time,” he says. “By going in and pleaing, I would be sent away right away.” That is, he chose the week of freedom he gained by going to trial—and the infinitesimal odds that he could be acquitted—over the decades he might have been free on parole with a second-degree sentence. He’s not going to make that youthful mistake again.

Because just now, for the first time in his adult life, Diatchenko has a glint of hope for gaining his freedom. In response to an evolving scientific understanding of children and crime, the state Supreme Judicial Court last year in Diatchenko v. District Attorney overturned a long-standing law, finding life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles. Now, one by one, these former teenage criminals have the unexpected opportunity to prove they deserve a second chance.

Diatchenko says he’s changed, that he’s no longer the impulsive and troubled teenager he was, that he’d never hurt anyone again. But whether he—or any of the state’s remaining juvenile lifers—will actually go home is up to the parole board. Which is why Diatchenko’s lawyer is nervous. He doesn’t want his client to say anything that could hurt his chances of being freed. After much reflection Diatchenko decided to speak with me anyway. “The parole board may hold it against me for doing this,” he says, “but there was a lot of negative publicity around the juveniles and this is a good way to show how the juvenile can change for the better.”

Diatchenko can’t sleep lately, excited about the newfound possibility of parole. He has now been locked up almost twice as long as he was free. He has modest dreams: moving into his mother’s tidy Roslindale bungalow, opening a small drain-cleaning business, attending his first Bruins game. “It is up to me to show [the parole board] that I have changed for the better,” he wrote me in a letter, “that I have remorse for what I have done, and that I will live as a law-abiding citizen if given the opportunity.”

Diatchenko’s happy childhood began to unravel when he was 10. He remembers the swing set in the backyard of his family’s house in Sharon, Christmas at his mother’s Latvian Lutheran church, summer afternoons on Lake Massapoag. But his parents’ divorce prompted a series of moves—to Brighton, Norfolk, Brookline, Quincy, Hingham, Jamaica Plain. Sometime during this uprooted period Greg’s sister, Iveta, started using drugs. Though she was only 12 or 13, it got serious fast: Their mother, Benita, was at the police station almost daily. Iveta began to run away from home, eventually moving in and out of DYS custody. Greg alternated between constant worry for his sister and resentment over her broken promises to quit using.

The family spun into chaos. Greg first tried pot at 13. Other drugs quickly followed: cocaine, mescaline, mushrooms. Soon he and his friends were smoking every day, drinking six-packs of Schlitz on the weekends, and dropping tabs of acid into cheap wine. Benita fought with her boyfriend all the time, and in her worry over Iveta, she developed a short fuse with Greg. By 17, he had dropped out of school. He felt adrift, full of anger and frustration. “It was very dysfunctional in my house, so for me [drinking] was an escape,” Greg recalls. “I could numb myself from the arguing.”

Greg’s circumstances were extreme, but his development as a teenager was not: As every parent knows, adolescents are impulsive, self-centered, and thrill-seeking. Neuroscience offers clear reasons why. With increasingly sophisticated technology, scientists can now pinpoint how brain development affects kids’ reasoning—or lack thereof. The limbic area, which controls emotion and responds to excitement and reward, is hyperactive during adolescence. Simultaneously, the prefrontal cortex— responsible for reason, caution, and long-term planning—doesn’t mature until the age of 25.

Recognizing the emerging science that shows a child’s brain is not fully developed by the age of 18, courts are increasingly reluctant to give teenagers sentences that can never be revisited. But the notion that teenagers should not be held fully responsible for their actions doesn’t sit right with everyone. The victim advocacy group National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers takes issue with what one University of Pennsylvania criminology professor has called “brain overclaim syndrome.” As the group writes on its website, “development is not all one thing—it is complex. It is hormonal, sexual, social, cognitive, emotional. Good judgment and good behavior do not come only from the frontal lobe.”

Indeed, other factors—like good parenting and a stable home life—are just as crucial. Greg’s home life was less violent than that of many juvenile lifers, but it was still unstable and unsupervised, awash in drugs and alcohol. Benita worked five or six nights a week as a waitress, so despite her best intentions, she was rarely home to keep tabs on her kids.

On Saturday afternoon, May 9, 1981, Greg was already trashed when he went to meet his friend John Kennedy, 17. The two had a few hours to kill before a party in Mission Hill, so they sat at the Brookline Village T stop and polished off two six-packs and a bottle of Southern Comfort before making their way over to Copley Square to meet friends.

There, they were running to catch a bus when Greg stopped to spray paint graffiti on a nearby wall. Kennedy looked out the back window of the bus as it pulled away, Greg running behind to catch it. Greg was as drunk that night as Kennedy had ever seen him and, Kennedy admits now, in no state to be left alone in the middle of the city. He still remembers the sound of Greg’s fist on the back door of the bus as it drove away.

Alone, Greg wandered for 10 minutes down Boylston Street, to a block where young hustlers would gather outside of the gay bar Skipper’s Lounge. There, Thomas Wharf was cruising for a date in his Cadillac. At 55, Wharf had been divorced for years, and though he kept his sexuality a secret from his family, lately his sons had begun to suspect that he “went both ways.”

Wharf had six adult sons, four of whom went on to follow their father into long-haul trucking. Wharf drove fish from Gloucester to the Midwest and then carried beef back east from Omaha. His son Mark remembers riding in the truck’s passenger seat, his dad teaching him how to steer the 70-foot rig. Thomas Wharf was 5-foot-8 and beefy, with Popeye forearms, a raspy voice, and thick black hair and mustache. “He was the greatest guy in the world,” Mark says.

What Greg Diatchenko was doing at Skipper’s is not clear. Was he hustling? Nothing about his past suggests it, but perhaps he was. A woman in the upstairs apartment testified that she heard him shout, “Give me all your money, you motherfucker.” Was it a drunken mugging gone wrong? His mom says even she doesn’t know what happened: When she asked him about it recently, he said, “Mama, can’t you understand? I’m too ashamed to talk about it.”

And while Diatchenko heeded the advice of his lawyer not to speak about his crime with me, he will have to talk about it in front of the parole board. Until then, here’s what we know from his 1981 trial: Greg Diatchenko stabbed Thomas Wharf nine times in the driver’s seat of Wharf’s car. The wounds were so extensive that a paramedic during the trial described Wharf’s body as “filleted open.” Blood was everywhere—the dashboard, the front seat, the driver’s side, the passenger’s side—and when the paramedics opened the driver’s-side door, more blood poured from Wharf’s chest onto the ground. The jury convicted Diatchenko of first-degree murder with malice aforethought and extreme atrocity and cruelty.

Diatchenko’s impressionable age, unstable home life, and severe alcoholism, his lawyer hoped, might warrant a measure of mercy, and he tried to introduce them as mitigating factors at sentencing. But none of it mattered. The sentence was mandatory.

Until last year, any 14-, 15-, or 16-year-old accused of murder in Massachusetts was tried as an adult and sentenced as an adult. Seventeen-year-olds were tried and sentenced as adults no matter the charge. Anyone convicted of first-degree murder got life without parole. No exceptions. The law was the most severe of any New England state and among the toughest in the country. As a result, by 2009, Massachusetts had four times as many juvenile lifers as all other New England states combined.

As a convicted murderer, Diatchenko was sentenced to serve his time in Walpole, the state’s only maximum-security prison at the time, used to house Massachusetts’ most violent inmates. Diatchenko arrived in prison puffy-eyed and crying. He looked even younger than his 17 years: His hair was blond and thick. His chin and cheeks were smooth. As the prison walls came into view through the windshield of the transport car, Diatchenko thought, This is the end of my life.

Diatchenko murdered Wharf on the eve of the nation’s toughening approach to juvenile crime. For a century, children were tried in juvenile courts and sentenced to juvenile correctional facilities, which held kids for limited periods and focused on treatment and rehabilitation. Then came the 1980s and early ’90s, a violent era, especially among youth: Between the mid-’80s and mid-’90s, the number of homicides by teenagers with guns climbed steadily each year, peaking in 1993 at more than 3,000—three times what the yearly rate had previously been. The Central Park jogger case introduced wilding to the national vocabulary. Amid the crack-cocaine epidemic, the war on drugs ushered in mandatory- minimum sentencing. Teenage homicide rates soon declined and have continued to fall, but sentencing laws were transformed for a generation.

As a young man in his twenties, Greg Diatchenko watched the political climate change from behind prison walls. At first, Massachusetts still offered incentives for inmates to rehabilitate themselves; even lifers could move from maximum- to medium- or minimum- security prisons and participate in work-release programs. It wasn’t unheard of for the governor to commute first-degree life sentences for exemplary prisoners. Then, in 1987, Massachusetts lifer Willie Horton—who walked away from a minimum-security prison while on a weekend furlough—committed a violent assault and rape. After the national, highly politicized backlash over Horton, coupled with the ballooning numbers of inmates serving “tough on crime” sentences, the DOC slashed services available to lifers. They could no longer participate in most vocational or rehabilitation programs. Since they would never get out, the department reasoned, they had a “low need” for programming.

*Massachusetts had long allowed for certain juvenile cases to be “transferred” to adult court, but until the early ’90s, these transfers were rare. In 1996, the legislature passed the most recent law: Anyone 14 and older accused of murder is tried as an adult. No exceptions.

That remained the law until last year. But with Diatchenko, Massachusetts followed the U.S. Supreme Court in an emerging jurisprudence that children are less culpable than adults and easier to rehabilitate. In 2005 the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. In 2010, it eliminated juvenile life without parole for non-homicide crimes. Then, in 2012, it ruled in Miller v. Alabama that even for homicide crimes, mandatory life without parole sentences were unconstitutional. A kid under 18—even a murderer—is too young to write off entirely, the court said.

“Incorrigibility,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “is inconsistent with youth.”

The court’s reasoning can be hard to square with the reality of a brutal crime. Last year, Massachusetts residents were shocked when Colleen Ritzer, a beloved 24-year-old math teacher, was found dead in the woods behind Danvers High School. Shortly after police arrested her then-14-year-old student Philip Chism for the murder, the Supreme Judicial Court outlawed life without parole for juveniles. If convicted, Chism will face a life sentence. But because of the state court’s ruling in Diatchenko, he’d be eligible for parole after 15 years. Feeling betrayed, Ritzer’s family issued a statement: “There will never be ‘parole’ for our family’s life sentence without Colleen.”

Recently, several victims’ families have worked together to ensure their loved ones’ killers never get out. In February, the family of Beth Brodie, who was 15 when she was beaten to death by a classmate in 1992, held a candlelight vigil to protest parole for her killer. Three months later, Brodie’s family and others delivered a petition with 15,000 signatures to Governor Patrick, urging him to limit the new ruling’s application. “To prepare for a parole hearing every three to five years retraumatizes victims’ families over and over again,” Brodie’s brother Sean Aylward told me.

Until the legislature passes a new law that’s compliant with Miller, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder will serve second-degree sentences: 15 years to life. But whether they get out after 15 years, die in prison, or serve some stretch of years in between hinges on their ability to improve themselves and prove it to the parole board. From 2011 until May of this year, according to Patricia Garin, who tracks parole numbers as a codirector of the Northeastern Prisoners’ Rights Clinic, the board has held hearings for 365 lifers. Twenty-eight went home. Among juvenile second-degree lifers, the number was four.

Mark Wharf, son of Diatchenko’s victim, is grappling with ambivalence over the parole hearing Diatchenko will eventually have. As one of only two of Thomas’s surviving sons, he feels it’s up to him to represent his family. He says he will not attend the hearing. He considered writing a letter but then decided to leave it be. “He’s been in 34 years,” Mark says. “That’s actually a lifetime right there. Maybe he paid his dues. If they give him parole, they give him parole. If they don’t, they don’t.”


The teenage Diatchenko arrived at Walpole scrawny and scared. He cried constantly. Through a family friend, he says, he found a group of guys to keep an eye on him, and he soon learned to project a tough-guy image to fit in. The guards, though, told him that they saw through his posturing. That tough-guy image doesn’t fly here, he recalls them saying. You’re a good kid. If you keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble, you can go to Norfolk or someplace better than this.

He was 21 when he decided to heed their advice. He stopped talking back. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and joined the Reach Out program, giving tours to teenagers at risk of ending up in prison. He got his GED, and found it felt good to be back in a classroom; he was proud when his teacher told him his score was the highest in his class. Five months later he was rewarded with a transfer to Norfolk.

There, he joined the Lifers’ Group, and took on several charity projects, including Toys for Tots, building wooden toys for children at area hospitals. He got a job in the plumbing shop and proved a fast learner, unclogging drains, adjusting flushometers, and repairing pipes. “It’s honest work,” he says. After 20 years on the job, he is now the prison’s chief plumber, often called in the middle of the night in an emergency. It feels good, he says, to be “one of the main guys that people look to to keep the institution running.”

If Diatchenko were serving a second-degree sentence, cynical observers might look at all he has accomplished in prison and think, You’re just trying to impress the parole board. But until last year, Diatchenko had no hope of ever getting out. He just did it. “I just knew that even if I never got out, I can still live,” he says. “I said, ‘Man, this is it. This is where I’m going to be. Make the best of it.’”

Diatchenko enrolled in Boston University’s Prison Education Program, where he is “an outstanding student,” as one professor described him in an affidavit: “conscientious, diligent, courteous, focused, and above all, critically engaged and intellectually aware.” He has read Michael Pollan, Aristotle, taken music and sociology and Irish Studies. In June, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.63 GPA.

Almost 10 years ago, a friend brought him to his first meeting of the prison’s Buddhist group. It was unfamiliar at first: chanting in Korean and meditation. But the teachings resonated, and he kept going back.

In 2007, Diatchenko committed to live according to Buddhist principles in a rite called taking the Five Precepts. He meditates every day at sunup and sundown. Buddhism has taught him that “life is being mindful,” he says. “ Everything we do has an effect on other people. When people have contact with me, I want them to come away with something positive.” At his ceremony, he vowed not to take life, not to steal, not to act badly in lust, not to lie, not to drink alcohol. May all my offenses, he chanted, now be totally consumed in an instant, as fire burns dry grass, extinguishing all things until nothing remains.

Greg Diatchenko turned 50 in February. His trim brown hair is gelled and combed back and his smile reveals decades of prison dental care. His eyes cloud pink when I ask him whether he would give himself a second chance if he were a member of Thomas Wharf’s family.

“Believe me, I’ve thought about that a lot over the years,” he says. “It never escapes my mind. When I think about what happ—” He rephrases: “what I’ve done, in my life. And the impact that had on their family….” He’s quiet and searches for words. “There’s nothing I can do to erase what I did. Nothing. And I can say I’m sorry a million times. And I would understand if they didn’t want to hear it. But I’ve made great strides to better myself as a human being.” Diatchenko blinks back tears. “I would hate me,” he practically whispers.

The parole board often focuses on the severity of the crime, as much if not more than they consider the work an inmate has done to better himself in the decades since. Diatchenko knows his odds. But regardless of the outcome of his hearing, “even if I never get out, I’m going to continue to do what I do in here,” he says. “Nothing’s ever going to change that. I’m still going to be part of the Buddhist community. I’m still going to work. I’m still going to get up every day—” his voice shakes, and he takes a deep breath as he continues, “and I’m going to try to help others in here as long as I can. I should have been doing that all my life.”

*Diatchenko will likely appear before the parole board next year.

– Beth Schwartzapfel, Boston Magazine


WASHINGTON, DC (July 23, 2014) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Wednesday introduced bipartisan legislation to curb youth homelessness that affects 1.6 million teens throughout the country.

The Leahy-Collins Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act reauthorizes a critical federal grant program established to help states and local communities address the needs of runaway and homeless youth in both urban and rural areas. The bill also extends the Transitional Living Program, which provides longer-term residential services, life skills, education, and employment support to older homeless youth. The proposal also reauthorizes the Street Outreach Program, a community-based program that focuses on crisis intervention.

The reauthorization measure includes important new language to combat human trafficking, as well as a non-discrimination clause to prohibit any grantee from discriminating against a child based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This new language would provide critical protection for the approximately 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBT.HomelessYouth

Leahy, who has long been a champion of youth services provided by the original Runaway and Homeless Youth Protection Act and fought for its reauthorization in 1998 and again in 2003, urged all Senators to support the bipartisan legislation. The bill is supported by the National Network for Youth, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, the True Colors Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, among many others.

“Supporting our youth when they are most in need, and helping to get them back on their feet benefits us all,” Leahy said. “Homeless children are less likely to finish school, more likely to enter our juvenile justice system, and are ill-equipped to find a job. The services authorized by this bill are designed to intervene early and encourage the development of successful, productive young adults.”

“Despite the recent decline we have seen in chronic homelessness, there are still more than 1.6 million homeless teens in the United States,” Collins said. “As the Ranking Member of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, I have made it my goal to address chronic homelessness. We must make sure our nation’s homeless youth have the same opportunity to succeed as other youth. The programs reauthorized by this bill are critical in helping homeless youth stay off the street and find stable, sustainable housing. I look forward to working with Senator Leahy to quickly move this bill through the Senate and House so that the President can sign it into law.”

-AP Staff,

Gov. Hassan signs bill raising juvenile delinquent age

CONCORD, NH (July 23, 2014)— Gov. Maggie Hassan has signed into law a bill that reclassifies most 17-year-old criminal offenders as juveniles.

Current law treats offenders 17 and older as adults. The change prevents most 17-year-old offenders from having an adult criminal record. It also prevents these teens from being sent to state prison.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, 2015, includes provisions for 17-year-olds to be tried as adults for serious crimes such as murder.

Hassan, who signed the law Friday, said it would strengthen the state’s juvenile justice system.

“Treating 17-year-olds as minors, barring the most extreme circumstances, is an appropriate and just policy that will help reduce recidivism among young people,” she said.

“HB 1624 is a bipartisan measure that helps preserve juvenile rights, while ensuring that the most serious offenses can still be brought to the adult courts.”

New Hampshire began treating 17-year-olds as adults in 1996 amid concern that Massachusetts criminals were sending juveniles into the state to distribute drugs, The Associated Press reported earlier this year. Based on the law at that time, those teens would be prosecuted in the state’s juvenile system.

At least 40 states consider 17-year-old offenders to be juveniles, including Massachusetts, which changed its law last fall, the AP reported.

John Fitzpatrick, co-director of the Justiceworks research and development group at the University of New Hampshire, hailed the new law.Maggie Hassan

“Put simply, if a young person requires remediation by the state justice system, it’s far better for that to happen within the juvenile justice system rather than the adult system,” he said Monday. “The juvenile justice services accorded those who have been detained or committed are much more geared to promoting behavioral health and well-being and less geared to more punitive ends.”

“As for the adult system, I’m afraid the prospects for those that have contact are grim,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that adults who served prison time are more likely to reoffend than those who did not.

Not everyone supported raising the age for juvenile crimes to 18, including many N.H. police chiefs.

Somersworth Chief Dean Crombie was among those who opposed the bill.

While he understands the rationale behind it, Crombie believes teenagers have a good sense of right and wrong by the time they turn 17.

“Like so many other chiefs, I think that kids at that age, they know what they are doing,” he said Monday.

Crombie said the change in law shouldn’t affect how police respond to crimes committed by 17-year-olds or change how they’re treated after an arrest.

“Whether they’re a juvenile or not, they are fingerprinted and booked,” he said.

Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi said very few 17-year-olds are charged with a felony. Most face misdemeanor offenses that are adjudicated at the circuit court level.

He’s concerned that the juvenile court system that scaled back after the 1996 law isn’t prepared to handle an influx of 17-year-old offenders.

“If we can absorb that population back into the juvenile justice system and deal with that population adequately, I don’t think we will feel much of a change,” he said this week.

However, he notes that the needs of a 17-year-old offender is different from that of a 14-year-old offender.

“The yardstick (to determine how week the law is working) will be how that population is being dealt with after being pushed back down into the juvenile justice system.”

– Casey Conley,

Youth crime drops sharply in R.I., report shows

PROVIDENCE, RI (June 30, 2014) – The Kids Count report shows that preventive programs aimed at keeping at-risk students in school and engaged with their families and their communities can be effective in keeping juveniles from ending up in trouble with the law.

The number of juveniles in the state who are remanded to the Rhode Island Training School after being convicted of crimes continues to decline, according to a new report from Rhode Island Kids Count, a statewide children’s research and advocacy organization.

The data-driven report shows a steep decline in the number of youths detained at the training school between 2004 and 2013.

According to the report, to be released Monday, the number of youths who were sent to the training school each year in that period dropped from 1,069 to 498.

The report shows that the decline in juvenile detainees is, in part, the result of a nationwide and statewide drop in criminal activities by youths.

Between 1995 and 2011, the juvenile arrest rate fell 52 percent nationally and 56 percent in Rhode Island, according to the report.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The Kids Count report shows that preventive programs aimed at keeping at-risk students in school and engaged with their families and their communities can be effective in keeping juveniles from ending up in trouble with the law.

“We’re optimistic about these trends [of declining juvenile incarceration and criminal activity],” Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said in an interview. “And we hope that the report serves as even more motivation to continue the work we need to do to see these numbers come down even further.”rhode island courthouse

Kids Count was scheduled to discuss the information in the report with juvenile justice advocates and community leaders during a round-table meeting Monday afternoon.

Many points in the detailed report bear closer examination, Bryant said.

For example, she said, about half of youths incarcerated for criminal activity in Rhode Island are from only four urban-core communities — Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket.

Also, minorities are disproportionately represented. Last December, 37 percent of the youths who were the subjects of adjudication at the training school were Hispanic, and 26 percent were black, Burke said.

While there are many good prevention programs, education and good school attendance are key components in keeping youths from taking the wrong path, the report states.

While the average age of juveniles at the training school is 16, Burke noted, most only possess seventh-grade reading skills and sixth-grade math skills.

“We need to do more to ensure that the connections between juveniles and their schools stay strong … because the chances of success for our youths depends so much on education,” Burke said.

Keeping youths connected to their local schools remains important if they are in the training school and after they are released, she said.

It is also critical, Burke said, that a young person has a positive relationship with a caring adult in his or her life, whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a coach or a youth counselor.

The report shows that many youths who are incarcerated while they are still juveniles have mental-health or substance-abuse problems, and had been victims of child abuse or neglect.

Burke hopes, she said, that Rhode Island continues to pursue alternatives to the training school for juveniles who do not pose any danger to others.

“There is still a number of Rhode Island youths involved in our juvenile justice system and it’s not what we’d want for our own kids and it’s not what we’d want for other people’s children.”

-Barbara Polichetti, Providence Journal