For Juvenile Advocate, The Job Is 'Why I Was Put On This Planet'
Jacob Ind was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 1994. A juvenile at the time, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Meeting Ind altered the life of Mary Ellen Johnson.
“I couldn’t get Jacob out of my mind,” Mary Ellen Johnson said. “Eventually, I ended up working with his defense as an investigator.” In that role, Johnson interviewed Ind several times. As she wrote in a letter to then Governor Ritter, "the thought of a life without parole sentence never entered my mind. Of course I was not only wrong, but frighteningly naive."
Ind’s case received wide press coverage, even national attention. The details of the case are both captured in a PBS Frontline investigation “When Kids Get Life” and as part of a 2013 documentary, Lost For Life.
Since then Johnson has been an advocate of juvenile offenders. Through the Pendulum Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2001 to advocate for juveniles serving life without parole, she has worked to change sentencing laws.
It has become a newfound purpose in life, a passion for Johnson.
“What I’ve thought about this, I believe we all have a destiny,” Johnson said. “When I look at his [Jacob Ind’s] face, or I see the faces of these other kids, and I see the pain that they’ve gone through, then I think ‘well, I have to do this.’ This is part of why I was put on this planet.”
It’s a difficult proposition; it was also the farthest thing from her mind, being involved with prison.
“Because to me, I can’t think of anything worse than being locked in a cage or childhood abuse," Johnson said. "Having my own children, it’s absolutely too painful, and yet for some reason the Universe or God is saying ‘I’m going to put this abused child in front of you and what are you going to do about him?'”
The Supreme Court of the United States struck down mandatory life sentences without parole as unconstitutional in the 2012 case of Miller v. Alabama [.pdf]. Johnson notes that it was a big victory, but not hers. It was work of the brilliant lawyers and a victory for all advocacy organizations.
There are still many juveniles in prison, Johnson thinks that some have been there for 20 years or more. Johnson says the longer they have the been there, the more difficult it is for them to get along once they are out. In Colorado, juveniles can serve no more than 40 years without parole according to the Pendulum Foundation.
She is working toward legislation to offer them a second chance.
“Some of these kids have been inside since they were 15 and 16-years-old,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get that legislation passed, and more than that, we want to get them ready to reintegrate into society. Some of them have been in prison since before the Internet and cellphones and all of that.”
Working toward that goal means also working with the system, to develop programs to help the juveniles prepare to be outside the prison walls. It’s Mary Ellen Johnson’s hope that it will lead to something more for both Pendulum and the inmates.
“After they start coming out, I want to turn over the Pendulum Foundation to them and have them advocate on behalf of those that are still inside and on behalf of juveniles everywhere,” Johnson said.
Editor's Note: This story is part of KUNC's Community Voices Project, it comes from an interview recorded and submitted by Mary Ellen Johnson and her brother, Victor Louis.