Spotlight on: José Burgos

From the September, 2023 Criminal Defense Newsletter
You are a former “juvenile lifer.” That is, when you were just 16, you were sentenced to life in prison, and you served 27 years before you were eventually released. What do you want readers to know about the movement in our state to end life sentences for children?

I believe the time has come to once and for all abolish the practice of sentencing children to life without parole in Michigan. In 2023, 28 states have banned the practice with 5 other states permitting it but with no one serving JLWOP, meaning that more than half of the states have banned the practice. We have the power to make Michigan the 29th state to end it as well. Children are worthy of second chances and children are worthy of redemption and forgiveness. We should never take a child’s ability to correct their wrongs no matter what that might be. Since the ruling in Miller v Alabama, over 1,000 juvenile lifers have been released and most of them are doing great proving that they can safely be released.
Since December 2019, you’ve worked as a Reentry Specialist with SADO’s Project Reentry. In early October, you will start a new job with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CSFY). Tell us about your new job. What kind of work will you be doing?

In my new position with CSFY, I will be the Michigan Campaign Coordinator, CFSY’s point person in Michigan to help advance legislation that will once and for all end the practice of sentencing children to life without parole in this state. CFSY has been very instrumental in helping advance this type of legislation in many states throughout the country and so it’s only right that they have a full-time presence in Michigan to do the same here.

Advocacy work is clearly very important to you. At what point did you realize that this would be your life’s work?

From the moment I walked out of prison I knew I wanted to do this work: I wanted to prove to myself and the world that children are more than just the few minutes that it took for them to make the bad decision that landed them in prison with a life without parole sentence. I wanted the world to know that we could hold children accountable for their actions without having to totally take away the HOPE of one day being able to rejoin society in a more productive and positive way.

But then came the question of how do we get this done? How do we change the minds of those who for decades have been fed the narrative that children who commit crimes are super predators, and that they are sociopaths who can never safely rejoin society? That’s when I started to look toward organizations like CFSY and ICAN (Incarcerated Childrens Advocacy Network) and saw how they have harnessed the power of storytelling, utilizing the voices of directly impacted leaders from across this country to effectuate change, to show the world that children are worthy of second chances and the positive impact they are having on their communities if only given a chance to do so. These are the men and women who are changing the narrative and proving that as a society we can safely abolish life without parole for children.

Have you been surprised by anything you've encountered in your advocacy work?

I can’t say much has surprised me; we are talking about changing a system that thought it was okay to condemn children to die in prisons that were never designed to hold children in the first place. We are talking about a system that fought very hard to make sure that the ruling in Miller v Alabama would not be applied retroactively. Had it not been for the United States Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v Louisiana making Miller retroactive, the more than 1,000 juvenile lifers who have since been released would have ended up dying in prison. So again, nothing surprises me about the system I lived in for 27 years.

Aside from abolishing life sentencing for youth, what other changes would you make to Michigan’s criminal legal system?

There are several aspects of the reentry process that need some improvement, starting with making sure that those who are released from incarceration have all of their vital records such as a birth certificate, social security card and state I.D. Far too often we see men and women being released without having proper identification, which makes it extremely hard to obtain necessary services, and makes it extremely hard to find meaningful employment – which in turn makes the reentry process that much more difficult. I know this personally because, when I was released in 2018, I was not given a birth certificate and it took me an entire year to get one. This meant that for an entire year I did not have a valid state I.D. The Michigan Department of Corrections has made some improvements but still too many are being released without their vital records. 

For the past couple of years, I have been working with a coalition of organizations on getting legislation passed that would ensure those getting released have their vital records, and I am happy to announce that this legislation has been successfully voted out of the state House of Representatives, and we are waiting for the Senate to do the same. Vital records are a critical component of the reentry process, in 2023 this is not the conversation we should be having; this should have been done years ago. I look forward to getting this legislation passed and signed by the Governor before the year is up.

Do you have any advice for defense attorneys who are working with clients who were sentenced as youth and who are serving very long or life sentences?

Be patient with your clients and understand that many of these men and women who were sent to prison as children have suffered an enormous amount of trauma and for some it takes time to build up trust. In many of these cases you will learn that these men and women were failed by every possible system that was put in place to protect them, they were failed by their families, they were failed by their schools, they were failed by the juvenile justice system, and for decades they have been failed by the adult justice system that was never created to house them in the first place. Be open and honest with your clients throughout the entire re-sentencing process and maintain a strong line of communication: there should never be a reason why your clients can’t get in touch with you for months at a time. That is unacceptable.

Do you have any advice for prisoners who were sentenced as youth to long or life sentences, and who are still waiting for resentencing or release?

For those of you who are still waiting to be re-sentenced I’d say this: don’t just sit around and wait for your attorney to do everything for you. Go learn the law as it applies to your case so that when the process of your re-sentencing starts, you’ll know exactly what’s going on at every stage of the process. As children we didn’t have the mental capacity to assist in our own defenses, and we all see how that turned out. Don’t let that happen again. Get involved in your own defense, read everything your lawyer sends you and, if there is something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is your life and freedom on the line so don’t ever think you have to remain silent.

For those of you who are in the process of being released, this is the time to really start setting GOALS of what it is you want to do with your newfound freedom, set realistic GOALS and understand that the reentry process starts way ahead of your actual release date. 

Once you are released, go at your own pace and don’t think that you must rush in to try to catch up to everyone else. The time we’ve lost due to incarceration can never be replaced, so don’t dwell on it so much. Just look forward and enjoy the rest of your life knowing that you have finally been given this opportunity to experience everything life has to offer. Life is beautiful, life is freedom, life is life and just be grateful that you have been given an opportunity that many of our brothers and sisters will never be given, so don’t take it for granted.

Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor