Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Growing up in prison

Compassion | Omaha case brings up questions of long sentences for juvenile offenders
by Charissa Koh
Posted 3/13/19, 05:42 pm

The sentencing of an Omaha, Neb., teen to decades in prison for murder raises once again the need for rehabilitation options for young people that don’t harden them in prison.

In February 2018, Tyon Wells and a friend tried to buy marijuana from two 17-year-olds. Wells, who had turned 14 less than two months earlier, brandished a gun and shot the older boys, one of whom, Zachary Parker, died from his wounds. Prosecutors charged Wells with second-degree murder. At 13, he would have been tried in juvenile court automatically, but Douglas County District Judge Shelly Stratman overrode his defense attorney’s request and sent Wells’ case to adult court. She cited his connection with gangs, violence at school, and familiarity with weapons as reasons. Wells took a plea deal and in January was sentenced to 22 to 48 years in prison.

“Zachary doesn’t have a second chance, but you do,” Stratman told him. “You have the opportunity to take those steps so this isn’t the only thing people remember you for.” According to state law, Wells could be eligible for parole in 11 years. He is currently incarcerated at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility in Omaha.

Around the time of Wells’ sentence, a 12-year-old boy in Texas was charged with capital murder. The prosecutor pushed for 40 years in prison. Houston lawyer Mandy Moore told me at the time that the Supreme Court has made it clear the justice system must treat juveniles differently than adults.

“Depending on the crime and the prior background, a long sentence, coupled with some sort of supervised release is conceivable,” she said. “But all of this depends heavily on the facts of the case and the child’s background.”

Eric Kelly, national juvenile justice ministry director for Youth for Christ, agrees. He said juvenile justice requires looking at the young people’s situation in life as well as their actions. “When basic long-term needs are not being met—food, shelter, safety, nurturing, etc.—young people will begin to think only short-term.” He said Wells was most likely operating in “survival mode” when he shot Parker and the other boy. Shortly after his arrest, Wells’ family posted a video on social media in which they said Tyon Wells was raised without a father, surrounded by gangs, drugs, and violence.

“But he has always had the support of his family, who worked tirelessly to steer him away from the lure of illegal activity,” family member Sherman Wells said in the video.

Kelly said Christians “need to advocate for a proportional response that balances society’s need for accountability with restoration, forgiveness, and most of all, genuine understanding.” He added that the justice system must change from a punitive approach to a restorative one. That means identifying the risk factors such as family situation and poverty and making a plan to address those, including after the young person is released from incarceration.

Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Selsky (file) Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Selsky (file) A house for rent in Salem, Ore.

The renter’s dilemma

The Oregon legislature passed the country’s first statewide rent control policy on Feb. 26. Rent control aims to protect tenants from landlords unreasonably increasing prices, but some say rent control drives up housing prices in the long run.

Senate Bill 608 caps rent increases at 7 percent per year plus the cost of inflation. It also requires landlords to provide a reason for evicting renters after their first year. Subsidized rent is not subject to the cap, and if tenants leave voluntarily, landlords may increase rent at will.

This is not the first time Oregon legislators have tried to impose rent control: Two years ago, a measure to end the state’s rent control restriction and let cities make their own policies failed in the Senate after passing in the House.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, has expressed support for SB 608 and will likely sign it.

A Stanford University study released March 4 found that rent control policies decreased the number of renters displaced from their homes by high rent, but they also led to less investment in housing. Eventually, fewer new housing units drives up the prices of existing units.

“I think it does more to protect landlords from strong tenant protection than to protect tenants from landlords,” Margot Black, a Portland tenant organizer, told The Oregonian. —C.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull A worker replacing fencing at the U.S. southern border near San Diego, Calif., on Monday

Endless appeals

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that asylum-seekers in the United States may appeal their cases in court instead of being immediately deported. The ruling stemmed from a case that involved Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, a Sri Lankan man who crossed the U.S. southern border in 2017. He claimed he was afraid to return home because his support for a minority political candidate got him beaten and almost drowned in a well. An asylum officer interviewed him and decided his claim was not credible, and the immigration judge agreed. A federal court in Los Angeles dismissed Thuraissigiam’s petition for habeas corpus, but the 9th Circuit ruled that he and other asylum-seekers should have the right to appeal under the U.S. Constitution.

“This will likely lead to more appeals of negative credible-fear reviews by immigration judges, fewer negative credible-fear reviews, and, as a consequence, more aliens seeking illegal entry into the United States,” wrote Andrew Arthur at the Center for Immigration Studies.

The Trump administration will likely appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, the 9th Circuit’s decision affects the states in its jurisdiction, including the border states of California and Arizona. —C.C.

Read more Compassion Sign up for the Compassion email
Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

Read more from this writer


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 03/16/2019 07:53 pm

    Regarding rent control, I wonder if anyone has tried requiring the landowners to determine their rent prices for the year (or two) following the contract period in advance, and make those prices public information when potential renters are comparing contracts (and afterward, when they consider renewal).

    That way the property owners can still set prices as they see fit, based on the market (albeit with a little more guesswork as to where it's headed), but the renters will have plenty of notice if the prices are about to become unaffordable, and will be able to shop around before they sign their contract to make sure that the rent isn't going to increase more than in similar properties. I've rented before, and I think if there was going to be a major price increase, it would be much less disruptive if my roommates and I had a year's warning to prepare and decide whether we wanted to pay it or shop around.