Michigan prosecutors defying U.S. Supreme Court on ‘juvenile lifers’

Prosecutors across Michigan are fighting to uphold sentences for most of the 350-plus prison inmates now serving mandatory life terms for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Their stance is in apparent defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court directive this year that courts across the nation are supposed to reduce life sentences for young offenders except in only “rare” cases.

According to data, which Bridge obtained from a network of Michigan lawyers, at least nine county prosecutors are asking judges to uphold life sentences for every so-called “juvenile lifer” convicted in their courts. They argue that these inmates, including some who have behind bars for decades, can never be safely returned to society.

“I think what the prosecutors are doing is appalling,” said Ann Arbor lawyer Deborah LaBelle, a prisoner rights advocate who is organizing free legal representation for about 100 juvenile lifers.

“The Supreme Court says the vast majority have to have the chance at being paroled,” LaBelle said. “You can't just lock them up and throw away the key for things they did as a child.”

Among the most resistant to the Supreme Court’s ruling: Saginaw County Prosecutor John McColgan Jr., who wants to uphold 21 of 21 sentences in which life terms were given to juvenile defendants. It's nine of nine in Kalamazoo County. And seven of seven in Muskegon County.

Meanwhile, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has asked judges to uphold mandatory life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates who committed crimes as juveniles. In Genesee County, Prosecutor David Leyton is asking the same in 23 of 27 cases.

Related: In prison for decades, one juvenile lifer’s quest for redemption

More broadly, four large Michigan counties – Genesee, Oakland, Saginaw and Wayne – account for 150 of the 218 cases for which prosecutors are seeking to uphold life without parole.

In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, Prosecutor Kym Worthy is seeking life without parole in 61 of 153 cases – hardly rare at 40 percent, but lower than Oakland County's request to uphold 90 percent of juvenile life sentences.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard put an incendiary exclamation mark on the position of prosecutors when he held a press conference in July in which he compared juvenile lifers to a famous fictional serial killer.

“I looked at a sample of these individuals and they are Hannibal Lecters who committed very heinous murders – often, multiple murders – and then they've continued to display very assaultive behavior in prison and show no remorse,” Bouchard said.

The meaning of ‘rare’

Overall, according to the data, prosecutors are seeking to uphold life-without-parole sentences for 218 of the 363 men and women in state prisons for crimes committed as minors. Most were convicted of first-degree murder or of abetting first-degree murder. Some were as young as 14. The oldest is now 71.

The effort to keep juvenile lifers permanently behind bars faces pushback from legal advocates, as well as some federal prosecutors.

Critics accuse county prosecutors of ignoring not only the clear instructions of the nation’s highest court, but overwhelming scientific research showing that adolescent brains are at once more impulsive than those of adults and yet more capable of change and growth as they mature, even among teens involved in brutal crimes.

Michigan's tough juvenile sentencing laws – allowing mandatory life without parole for those as young as 14, and for decades treating 17-year-olds as adults – have made the state a leader in imprisoning juveniles for life, ranking second only to Pennsylvania.

For years now, the U.S. Supreme Court, relying heavily on developments in brain science, has chipped away at the notion that young criminals are irredeemable.

In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the justices concluded that juveniles should no longer face the possibility of mandatory life terms. Then, this past January, the court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively to those already in prison. The 6-3 decision required local courts to reconsider a shorter sentence for roughly 2,000 juvenile lifers across the country.

The ruling reignited a familiar and contentious debate over crime, punishment – and the redemptive possibilities for young offenders who commit horrible crimes.

Mandatory life sentences, the court said, should be reserved for those “rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” who exhibit “such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”

Prosecutors in Michigan were given a July deadline to name juvenile lifers within their jurisdictions who they contend remain too dangerous to ever walk free. Those named will face an eventual mini-trial in which prosecutors have to prove they were among the irretrievably depraved. The facts of the original crime, statements by friends or relatives of the victim and each inmate's background and behavior in prison are to be weighed.

For those lifers not targeted by prosecutors, legislation signed by Gov. Snyder in 2014 spells out a default minimum sentence of 25 years in prison to maximum of 60 years.

The adolescent mind

Juvenile advocates insist that life without parole is too harsh for crimes committed by minors, whose brains are less developed, more impulsive and far more susceptible to peer pressure. They say life terms also ignore young people’s greater capacity for rehabilitation. After years in prison, advocates say, many of these younger inmates display rehabilitative qualities that at least merit discussion about their ability to rejoin society.

They point to cases like that of Barbara Hernandez, imprisoned since 1991 for the murder of James Cotaling in Pontiac. Cotaling was stabbed to death by Hernandez’s then-boyfriend and apparent pimp, Jim Hyde. There was dispute at trial as to whether Hernandez - who was 16 at the time of the crime - physically aided Hyde in the attack.

Her champions argue that since entering prison she has overcome a childhood marked by sexual abuse and parental neglect and an abusive relationship with Hyde. Housed at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, she has become a leader and mentor to other women who suffered similar trauma. She is ready, at age 42, they say, to safely rejoin society.

On the other side, victim rights' advocates and prosecutors insist violent crime must be severely punished – regardless of age.

In an interview with Bridge, Oakland County prosecutor Cooper called the 44 cases that she challenged for parole some of the most “heinous” crimes she has seen. She said her decision on those cases was reached only after months of exhaustive review.

“We are talking about victims who were stabbed, drowned, bludgeoned and decapitated,” Cooper said. “We are not talking about people who took Dad's car and drove over somebody's lawn.

“Many of these crimes were totally random. They walked up to a car and decided to shoot in it. On and on and on and on. We are really talking about awful cases.”

She pointed to the crime committed by Thomas McCloud Jr., convicted in 2009 on two counts of first-degree murder in the 2008 fatal beating of two elderly Oakland County homeless men. McCloud was 14 at the time, convicted with another 14-year-old. Cooper is seeking to keep him in prison for life.

According to his attorney, McCloud rejected plea deals from prosecutors on three separate occasions on his family’s advice. Under a proposed plea to second-degree murder, attorney Howard Arnkoff said, the teen would have been eligible for parole – and perhaps out of prison – by age 30.

Cooper also cited the 1989 murders of General Motors executive Glenn Tarr and his wife, Wanda, of Rochester Hills. The killers, Bruce Christopher Michaels, and his accomplice, Joseph Andrew Passeno, were 16 and 17, respectively; they received life without parole for the couple’s kidnapping, robbery and fatal shooting.

Rethinking mandatory terms

Lansing has wrestled in recent years with the state’s get-tough approach toward younger offenders. For decades, Michigan charged all 17-year-olds as adults, a practice that would change with legislation that cleared the state House in May, but remains mired in the Senate. Michigan is one of just eight states in which 17-year-olds are still automatically treated as adults by the criminal justice system. That law alone accounts for 207 of the juvenile lifers currently in state prisons.

In 1996, then-Gov. John Engler signed legislation that allowed prosecutors to try teens as young as 14 in adult court for certain crimes, with life without parole for first-degree murder.

Only recently have voices across the political spectrum begun to rethink the mandatory sentencing laws of 1980s and ‘90s, particularly for crimes committed by juveniles. Those voices now include a group of current and former federal prosecutors, who have publicly rebuked state prosecutors for, in their view, defying the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Michael Dettmer, former U.S. Attorney for Michigan's Western District, joined with another former Western District U.S. Attorney, James Brady, and Richard Rossman, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, recently wrote an op-ed condemning the move by state prosecutors to challenge lesser sentences for juvenile lifers.

“As former U.S. Attorneys,” they wrote, “we would have expected Michigan prosecutors to understand Montgomery’s central tenet that children are uniquely capable of growth and maturation and must be able to demonstrate their rehabilitation.

“Instead, too many prosecutors are focusing on the crime committed by a troubled adolescent without exercising the judgment to recognize whether the adult before them today has rehabilitated himself.”

Dettmer said he considers state prosecutors’ push to keep so many in prison for life “a slap in the face” of the court's instruction on rehabilitation.

Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken, a Republican, has also added his criticism of the juvenile lifer law.

Related: Former Gov. Milliken urges Lansing to ban juvenile lifer laws

But county prosecutors have a powerful ally in Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Schuette has vigorously fought reconsideration of juvenile life sentences, filing a friend of the court brief in 2015 in the Montgomery case on behalf of Michigan and 15 other states opposing any retroactive look at those sentences.

Asked to comment on the high rate of challenges by county prosecutors, a Schuette spokesperson said, “In general, Attorney General Schuette supports local prosecutors and their decisions.”

The next move is in the hands of local judges.


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Thu, 08/25/2016 - 9:12am
"overwhelming scientific research showing that adolescent brains are at once more impulsive than those of adults and yet more capable of change and growth as they mature" Try telling that to the Transgender support group.
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 9:21am
I'll start respecting and trusting the law enforcement system in this country more when the law enforcers start respecting the law. This conduct, despite your personal feelings on the matter, is outrageous given that the Supreme Court has already ruled on this issue. Law enforcers might not LIKE the ruling (SCOTUS has made many rulings I personally don't agree with), but that doesn't give them the right to ignore it.
Patriot Lawyer
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 9:52am
These inmates are vicious predators who intentionally murdered innocent people in cold blood. They are beyond redemption and do not deserve a 2nd chance to kill someone else - perhaps your loved one. Further, what about the point of prison to be punishment of those who commit heinous acts? There is no true rehabilitation in prison - only "super criminal university" where inmates teach each other how to commit crimes. As Michigan does not execute, they should stay behind bars forever. The fact is that the vast majority of humans do not murder other humans. These inmates have shown they cannot live in society. If these people get out and commit another murder, the blood is on the hands of the liberals supporting this insanity.
Joe Haveman
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 10:42am
The United States Supreme Court disagrees with your assessment that colors all 363 of these juvenile lifers with one broad brush. That was the whole point of the Miller vs. Alabama case.
Fri, 08/26/2016 - 9:13am
In reply to my Patriot Lawyer colleague, no doubt these crimes were heinous and caused unspeakable horrors to the victims and their loved ones. But Bridge's story is about the status of juvenile life without parole law as decided by the Miller and Montgomery SCOTUS decisions which were based on the court's conclusions in its earlier decisions in the Roper and Graham which held children (minors or juveniles) are "constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes". As stated in Miller, "Their (juveniles) lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. They are more vulnerable...to negative influences and outside pressures, including from their family and peers; they have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. And because a child's character is not as well formed as an adults, his traits are less fixed and his actions less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depravity" (sub-italics omitted). What most Michigan prosecutors, lead by Michigan's chief law enforcement officer, Bill Schuette have failed to do is review the 360 Michigan cases pursuant to the court's direction and observations as stated in Miller and its progeny. I find this sad as it is every prosecutors' primary responsibility as articulated by the late SCOTUS Justice George Sutherland: A "[Prosecuting] Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he [she] is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor – indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one." I simply suggest the manner most Michigan prosecutors and our attorney general have faced the Miller decision is both sad, foul and contrary to their sworn responsibilities.
Fri, 08/26/2016 - 1:50pm
Have the prosecutors violated any law or are they simply trying to define what constitutes the 'rare' case? Did the Supreme Court require all juveniles to be released or did they establish a 'rare' case option? Is the 'rare' cased based on statistics such as one in a ten thousand or does it have to do with the nature or the crime and what they have done since the crime they were convicted for? How can you be so sure that the 'lack of maturity' is limited to the juvenile? Do you really equate the heinousness of their crimes to maturity? If that is the case then it seems that there are many adults who 'lack maturity' and so many of them were forcing that 'lack of maturity' on too many others when they were juveniles and as adults. Personally I would rather have someone following due process to ensure that those who have committed heinous crimes is properly vetted to reduce the likelihood that they are not the 'rare' case that should be kept in. What guarantee are you offering that those who committed the heinous crime that sent them to jail will not destroy another family with such a heinous crime after release?
Sun, 08/28/2016 - 6:44pm
So well said Michael, thank you. State and local government are out of control, and MI has a law and order AG who looks for every opportunity to make a name for himself, even if it is a bad one. There is no compassion in the current government. The good news is that people are paying attention.
Mon, 08/29/2016 - 11:03pm
Bernadette, I struggle with your attack on the AG, you seem to base it on his lack of compassion. Help me to understand what these convicted felons showed toward their victims and their loved ones that makes them more compassionate than the AG. It seems that these people were tried and convicted of some heinous crimes and the AG is simply following through with these case to verify whether they are the exceptions that Supreme Court mentioned in their ruling. At least from what I read in the article it will be the courts that decide whether these cases are the exceptions or they are to be let free.
Tue, 08/30/2016 - 8:53pm
Duane, 2 wrongs don't make a right. Have you ever made a mistake? Have you ever had to forgive someone, or more importantly be forgiven by someone? I read your responses to these articles and am never surprised by your responses. I sense no understanding of what any of these people went through. Bill Schuette has demonstrated again and again his lack of compassion and his "law and order" attitude. I am so tired of hearing the same rhetoric from the far right. Cut taxes, law and order, halt immigration. We are better than that as a nation.
Kevin Grand
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 10:54am
"Juvenile advocates insist that life without parole is too harsh for crimes committed by minors, whose brains are less developed, more impulsive and far more susceptible to peer pressure. They say life terms also ignore young people’s greater capacity for rehabilitation. After years in prison, advocates say, many of these younger inmates display rehabilitative qualities that at least merit discussion about their ability to rejoin society." So here is my question for Mr. Roelofs: According to your own article at least 350 individuals were viciously killed by the actions of these people you are advocating for. 350 people who will not attend things like weddings, graduations, birthdays, picnics, holiday gatherings and other family events...things that we take for granted, because unlike these inmates you are apparently enamored with, those 350 are now moldering in the ground and will never see their loved ones ever again. What do you say to their family and friends? Sorry, it won't happen again? Would you trot out your studies and charts to demonstrate that the people who killed their loved ones are changed people? Unlike their victims, whose only contact they have with their loved ones is a cold grave marker, at least these inmates had an opportunity to change. Whether or not they really have is anyone's guess. Expanding on that troubling variable further; what will you say the family and friends of next victim from any one of these "reformed" inmates if they are turned loose and return to their old ways? I really didn't see that one coming? I highly doubt that the next family will be very forgiving. So, what say you?
David Zeman
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 11:49am
Hi Kevin, I'm Bridge's editor, and the editor of this story, so I can hopefully answer this one. It's certainly a defensible point that you're making, and you will find no shortage of people inside or outside of law enforcement who agree with you. The first point I would make in response is that neither Ted or Bridge is making a personal or ideological point here in this story. The push to reconsider mandatory life sentences for these offenders is not Ted's crusade. What he (i.e., we) is simply reporting is that the nation's highest court has essentially commanded the justice system to abolish life sentences for crimes committed by minors except in the RAREST of cases. You can agree or disagree with that ruling, and there are many folks on both sides of the equation. But that is the directive issued to prosecutors and courts across the country by the Supreme Court. Despite this very clear instruction, prosecutors in Michigan are urging judges to keep MOST of these inmates behind bars for life. Whether "rare" means 1 percent, 3 percent, or 7 percent of such cases, I have no idea. But it certainly does not mean a majority of juvenile lifer cases. Again, you can agree or disagree with the High Court's opinion, but as a prosecutor you have a distinct and clear-cut duty to follow the law as well as the Constitution as the courts have interpreted it. And the U.S. Supreme Court is, as you know, the final arbiter of the Constitution. That is what makes the volume and rate of prosecutor challenges in Michigan notable, and newsworthy. David
Kevin Grand
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 5:35pm
Mr. Zeman, When you have two articles posted on the same subject on the same day from the same author, along with a third from former Gov. Milliken (and not even an acknowledgement of an offer made to someone like the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers for a rebuttal), I hope that you can forgive my skepticism with this not being personal or ideological regarding your conclusions with Montgomery v. Louisiana. I'm unable to locate that part where SCOTUS "essentially commanded the justice system to abolish life sentences for crimes committed by minors except in the RAREST of cases." The best that I could find is this (and they should know, since they actually wrote it): "A State may remedy (emphasis mine) a Miller violation by extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders. This would neither impose an onerous burden on the States nor disturb the finality of state convictions. And it would afford someone like Montgomery, who submits that he has evolved from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community, the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change." There is a big difference between "may" and "shall", so their most recent ruling is hardly a clear instruction. It should be pointed out that SCOTUS is by no means omnipotent and infallible. Aside from the obvious example of when SCOTUS upheld racial segregation in this country for nearly six decades ("Plessy v. Ferguson"), did you know that SCOTUS overruled itself at least 220 times in the past? I was surprised myself when I double checked that figure! And yes, I am aware of SCOTUS' role as "final arbiter" (a role that it literally had given to itself). But it should also be pointed out that there two things you have overlooked. In the Declaration of Independence, it clearly states that We are endowed by our Creator "...with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." SCOTUS' Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling flies right in the face of those three examples right there. It goes on to say, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,</b (emphasis mine). That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..." The prosecutor challenges are notable and newsworthy. It's encouraging to see that there are those who haven't forgotten the actual role of government and know where their power really comes from.
Gary Scott
Fri, 08/26/2016 - 7:55am
Extremely well said Kevin. Our Laws reflect our societal values, not to mention Biblical precepts of God for living a life with peace, hope and true happiness.
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 12:08pm
While I certainly feel compassion for those who are locked up for life at a young age for a crime that they may have remorse for, this seems as if there might a huge double standard happening in our legal community. There is enormous (and rightful) outrage over two college age men who raped women who were drunk, and yet got off with a slap on the hand - because judges thought their lives were worth a second chance. Anyone who has done any amount of research, or who has teenagers, knows that men develop more slowly than women and don't reach physical or mental maturity (the end of puberty) until somewhere between 22 and 25. I am in agreement with most that these two young men were not justly punished for the crimes the committed on young women who were in no position to give consent to the acts perpetrated on them - the very definition of rape. The two judges (one in California and one in Colorado) are now being investigated, and prosecutors are forcing them to be removed from cases involving sex crimes. However, here we see that teenagers (albeit younger than those who committed the recent rapes) committed violent crimes, most often murder according to this article, and the Supreme Court believes that they should be set free because young minds, still subjected to the wide hormone shifts of puberty, are more likely to make bad decisions. Where is the consistency in the law??? Shouldn't the decision on whether someone has been rehabilitated to the point of no longer being a danger to society be left up to those who can interview them, and/or observe their behavior daily - like prison officials, counselors and medical professionals in their home state? I am not in favor of locking up children without every giving them a chance to have a life, but I also believe that there are people who have mental illnesses or character defects - whatever you choose to call it - who will always pose a danger to society. Sociopaths exist, and their behavior begins to manifest in their teens sometimes. Should these people be let out again?
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 12:56pm
Richard Wershe Jr. is 28 years into a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense which occurred when he was a minor (17 years old). Rick was arrested for doing what a drug task force had previously encouraged and paid him to do starting when he was just 14 years old. Why should Rick have to spend another day behind bars for the mistakes he made as a kid?? "In May 1987, when he was 17, Wershe was charged with possession with intent to deliver eight kilos of cocaine, which police had found stashed near his house following a traffic stop. He had the misfortune of being convicted and sentenced under one of the harshest drug statutes ever conceived in the United States, Michigan’s so-called 650 Lifer law, a 1978 act that mandated an automatic prison term of life without parole for the possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine. (The average time served for murder in state prisons in the 1980s was less than 10 years.) Sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide crimes was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, by which point such sentences were already exceedingly rare; the court was able to locate only 129 inmates serving them nationwide. Michigan eventually acknowledged the failures of the 650 Lifer statute—the governor who signed it into law, William G. Milliken, has called it the greatest mistake of his career—and rolled it back in 1998. Those already serving time became parole eligible and began to be released. Wershe is the only person sentenced under the old law who is still in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile. Prominent and violent kingpins and enforcers from Wershe’s day in Detroit have long since been freed. And yet Wershe has remained incarcerated, for more than 27 years." - From 'The Trials of White Boy Rick' by Evan Hughes.
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 5:23pm
Whether we agree with this one or not, reform in our 'crime and punishment' system is needed in so many areas. There are thousands of men and woman incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, for instance. It takes an average of 11 years for their pleas of 'actual innocence' are heard and acted upon, if it (the appeals process) ever happens, or responds at all. What immature children do...and yes, brutal, horrible acts included, shouldn't be forgiven, but at some point, the cost of keeping them locked up vs a strict evaluation of who they are NOW vs THEN, may be in order before they are released.
John Q. Public
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 6:25pm
You can blame the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Until the carte blanche of government officials is reined in, they'll continue to exercise it. A little personal civil liability will solve this problem.
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 8:35pm
"Apparent defiance..."; More like due diligence. The prosecutors are not going to just bow to a "rare circumstances" standard without some kind of guidance. The Supreme Court was remiss in not addressing the standard further. Now the Court will watch as a parade of appeals work back through the system so they can correct this in future cases. I would suggest given the overall number of cases involving life sentences in Michigan that a juvenile life sentence is a relatively "rare" event.
Fri, 08/26/2016 - 1:29pm
I feel that any time a prosecutor offered a plea deal to a lesser offense, at the minimum the current sentence should be reduced to the lesser of what the plea sentence would have been or the statutory 25 years default minimum.
Phil L.
Sun, 08/28/2016 - 11:34am
Prosecutors are given too much authority by the state legislature and there's little, if any transparency in their decision making processes. That could all be addressed with legislation but it likely won't be.
Robert C. Short
Sun, 08/28/2016 - 2:46pm
To believe they know the juvenile mind is to act out of ignorance, not knowledge! Having taught 7th & 8th graders for over twenty years I know they will not be the same, mentally, in a couple of years. Many may not change that much till after high school.
Sun, 08/28/2016 - 10:19pm
I am sure that those who agree with maintaining these sentences will also agree with allowing juveniles to vote, marry, serve in the armed services, enter into contracts, etc.
Mon, 08/29/2016 - 11:24am
Michigan is becoming so right wing it is an embarrassment to live here.