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Young Perps: The Costs of Sensationalizing Youth Crime

This is a screenshot from WAPT’s perp-walk video of an accused 16-year-old.  Media asked JPD to stage the demonstration on Nov. 14 for photos and video. Photo courtesy WAPT

This is a screenshot from WAPT’s perp-walk video of an accused 16-year-old. Media asked JPD to stage the demonstration on Nov. 14 for photos and video. Photo courtesy WAPT

Shortly before 9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 11, in the Presidential Hills subdivision in northwest Jackson, a 14-year-old girl named Alexandria Love was shot in the head. Just an hour later, doctors at the University of Mississippi Medical Center listed Love in very critical condition.

As doctors cared for Love and her teenage classmates sent Facebook prayers laden with emoji, the Jackson Police Department tweeted that it was looking for the alleged suspect: "a 15-year old unidentified BM," using a shorthand abbreviation for black male. "If identified as a suspect, adult charges are possible, and identity will be released," JPD added.

The Jackson Police Department then kept reporters informed via email during every step of their pursuit of the teenage boy, who remained nameless for a time.

On Nov. 13 at 4:10 p.m. JPD tweeted, alongside an earlier mugshot, that they wanted Sheroderick Elmore for aggravated assault in connection with Love's shooting. Less than two hours later at 5:42 p.m., they announced his capture via Twitter. Around dinnertime on Nov. 14, JPD tweeted that Love had died—Jackson's 53rd homicide to that point. There are now 59 homicides on the books in 2017. That tweet also disclosed that Elmore's charges had been upgraded from aggravated-assault to murder. A few hours later, JPD sent reporters his updated booking photo via email.

Jackson Police Department spokesman Sgt. Roderick Holmes said JPD believes some sort of "argument or altercation" took place prior to the shooting between Love and Elmore, but there are no further details about it to date. What they do know is that Elmore and Love were not alone in the residence where the shooting took place, although the two teens may have been alone in a room together when the gun went off. Holmes added that the "detectives believe they have the individual that shot (Love), but what actually led to that shooting is what's in question."

With a heavy allegation and charge against him that strip him of youthful qualities, it becomes easy to forget that Elmore is still not old enough to vote, buy cigarillos or enlist in any military branch. He is also innocent until proven guilty, despite local-turned-national media attention that can seem more like a frenzy.

But, this story is not uniquely Elmore's. Many youth are caught up in a criminal-justice system with a long-running history of flip-flopping between punitive and rehabilitative models and inconsistency of who gets charged as an adult and who does not. 
 Minority youth can be victimized twofold: first by a system that tends to see them as adults more often than it does their white counterparts, and then again by media attention that preys on the same damaging racial stereotypes that got them there in the first place.

Of Chains and a Perp Walk

Sheroderick Elmore walked into his initial court appearance facing adult charges on Nov. 14, the day before his 16th birthday. There, the judge revoked his bond. Then, two police officers walked on either side of Elmore's slender frame, the shackles around his ankles and wrists and the chain around his waistline jangling with each step. Television reporters and other journalists with cellphones were in place and ready to record this staged perp walk as he slinked toward a white police van.

"Do you have anything to say?" a reporter asked the teenager. No audible response followed. Instead, Elmore climbed into the vehicle, his head lowered first to clear the car door, but then it remained that way as cameras encroached to continue filming the teenager before the doors shut a final time.

Holmes told the Jackson Free Press that the police department's protocol for sending out mugshots to media depends on several factors, including public and media demands. But, it can also hinge on "what's going on at the time," he said.

JPD typically releases mugshots of juveniles charged with violent crimes to the media—but not always. It is the police department's discretion to send out a mugshot after an arrest. In Elmore's case, the Jackson Free Press received six emails over the course of four days about developments. Sometime after JPD released his booking photo, other media outlets called JPD to arrange for the perp walk to take place after the teenager's initial bond hearing.

"Generally, they'll contact either me or whoever is available that day and just ask if they can get what they call a 'perp walk,'" Holmes said in an interview. "That's the term that's used, and if we can accommodate them, then we'll do it, but not all the time we're actually able to do it."

Holmes added that JPD never initiates a perp walk; they are always in response to media requests. He said the department received more than one request for the opportunity to photograph Elmore, which was another factor that allowed the perp walk to take place. Police also have to schedule the photo op with the court and the jail. Normally, JPD will not do perp walks for a single media outlet, Holmes said. If only one outlet requests a perp walk and they decide to do it, they may try to let other media outlets know it is taking place.

Reporters then prepare television broadcasts and publish video footage and mugshots online. These images often remain linked through Google searches even if the arrestee is later proven innocent or if a judge moves the case back to youth court, where juveniles have more protections.

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Patrick Webb is an associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine's University, a historically black college in Raleigh, N.C., who has done research on the relationship between media coverage and juvenile proceedings. Photo courtesy Patrick Webb

Patrick Webb is an associate professor of criminal justice at St. Augustine's University, a historically black college in Raleigh, N.C., who has done research on the relationship between media coverage and juvenile proceedings. He says research points to a "simple correlation" between the police and the media, meaning "when you see one, you see the other," and these entities working in tandem can have a severe impact on how young people see themselves.

Webb says that in depicting a "young person that's not culpable" as a criminal in the media, juveniles can come to see themselves as criminals, and in turn will exhibit that type of behavior in a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

In a 2008 study, Webb presented a theory that suggested public embarrassment from the media and other tactics could teach children to abstain from criminal behavior to avoid public embarrassment to themselves and their families and to keep from jeopardizing their futures. But, Webb says, these fear-backed, short-term measures like "Scared Straight" tough talks and media "dog-and-pony" shows only create temporary behavior changes. He says the best way to discourage anti-social behavior is not to intimidate or shame the person.

"Exposing children to 'hey, look this is what can happen to you, look at this perp walk, look at this kid behind these bars,' it may frighten him and it may expose him, but it's not going to change his thinking," Webb said. "It will only frighten him and shock him and entertain him and leave an impression, but that impression will not be permanent, and it will not lead to a change of behavior."

'Irremediably Delinquent'

Kids in the Jackson Public School system wear a uniform up until high school. Entering ninth grade, ditching the school uniform becomes one of the defining transitional moments into adolescence. But, when juveniles are charged with a crime and held in jails or detention centers, they are stripped of many freedoms, including what they can wear. They trade in graphic T-shirts for a uniform mandated by a state ironically lacking homogeneity in its juvenile-justice system.

Earlier this summer, headlines ripped through the country about the tragic murder of Kingston Frazier, a 6-year-old boy who was asleep in the back of his mother's car that was stolen from the Jackson Kroger parking lot when she ran inside to grab some items late at night. Frazier was later found dead, and three teenagers were charged with capital murder.

Dwan Wakefield Jr. of Ridgeland was granted a $275,000 bond in November. Wakefield and another suspect, DeAllen Washington, were both 17 at the time of the shooting. Previous statements have painted Byron McBride, 19, as the shooter in this crime, although it is not yet proved.

Capital murder is a crime punishable by death and one for which juveniles can be charged as adults. However, while Elmore faces lesser charges for allegedly murdering Alexandria Love, he is being held without bond, although Wakefield went home.

As early as 1984, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall knew that pre-adjudicatory detainment was not going to be applied fairly. Schall v. Martin, a landmark Supreme Court case upheld that juveniles who present a "serious risk" can be held in preventive detention so they do not commit another crime before trial.

The ruling left it to judges to decide, based on their own predictions, who presented a "serious risk" and who did not.

Marshall dissented, citing that the decision left too much room for subjectivity in how judges will decide which juveniles are detained before their cases go to trial and those who can go home.

On the other hand, the majority of justices believed that detention before trial is justified because "juveniles, unlike adults, are always in some form of custody." Marshall and two other justices disagreed.

"The majority's arguments do not survive scrutiny. Its characterization of preventive detention as merely a transfer of custody from a parent or guardian to the State is difficult to take seriously," Marshall wrote in the dissent. "Surely there is a qualitative difference between imprisonment and the condition of being subject to the supervision and control of an adult who has one's best interests at heart."

Marshall added that because juveniles are impressionable, incarceration can be "more injurious to them than to adults," and that those juveniles subjected to preventive detention come to see society as "hostile and oppressive."

In turn, they would regard themselves as "irremediably delinquent," he warned.

"Such serious injuries to presumptively innocent persons—encompassing the curtailment of their constitutional rights to liberty—can be justified only by a weighty public interest that is substantially advanced by the statute," Marshall wrote.

By Geography and Race

Today, geography seems to be one of those subjective variables in the juvenile process in Mississippi.

Jody Owens II, managing attorney of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offered an explanatory anecdote. Say a kid grabs someone's cellphone out of a car and he happened to have a knife on him. Owens said some people could look at that as aggravated assault, or armed robbery, even if the knife was never exposed. Others would see it as petty theft.

The JFP's 'Preventing Violence' Series

A full archive of the JFP's "Preventing Violence" series, supported by grants from the Solutions Journalism Network. Photo of Zeakyy Harrington by Imani Khayyam.

"There's a wide range of latitudinal control that (law enforcement) has when it comes to charging individuals," Owens told the Jackson Free Press. "And largely the system of checks and balances would be from the county attorney and prosecutor."

State law automatically launches certain juveniles into the adult court system due to the nature of their crimes. Because Elmore allegedly committed an act using a deadly weapon, statutory authority treats him, and any youth as young as 13, as an adult in the jurisdiction of the circuit court. 
However, he can be waived into the juvenile system later at the discretion of his lawyers or a public defender through a motion that may or may not be granted—even after his mugshot and perp-walk video have made the rounds, and he has faced cameras.

Owens said that, in his experience, when youth actually face sentencing, juveniles convicted of the same crime get time varying from two years to 10 years to 20 years depending on where they committed the crime.

"We like to highlight in Mississippi (that) it's just by geography," Owens said. "And what that means is that where you are determines how much time you will spend in prison and what you will be charged with. We see it time and time again. It's particularly sad and painful for many of us who do this work."

As of July 2017, the Mississippi Department of Corrections detained 694 youthful offenders under 22 years old in correctional facilities throughout the state. Nationally, The Sentencing Project found that as of 2015, black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth.

Sentencing Project data from 2013 indicates that these disparities in arrest rates exist even when black and white youth commit the same type of crime and have residual effects at every point in the justice system thereafter.

"The arrest disparity is the entrance to a maze with fewer exits for African American youth than their white peers," a Sentencing Project study reads.

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that transferring youth from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system "typically results in greater subsequent crime, including violent crime." One of the CDC studies conducted in Florida found that youth transferred to the adult system had 34 percent more felony re-arrests than youth retained in the juvenile system.

A 2008 Campaign for Youth Justice study shows that African American youth are 62 percent of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence for similar or even lesser crimes.

Other research points to biases in how the public perceives black youth as more deserving of harsh treatments than white youth. In 2012, a Stanford University study highlighted "the fragility of protections for juveniles when race is in place."

Researchers asked a sample of 735 white Americans to read about a 14-year-old-male with 17 prior juvenile convictions who brutally raped an elderly woman. Half the respondents were told the offender was black, the other half that he was white.

The study found that participants who were told to envision a black offender more strongly endorsed a policy of sentencing juveniles convicted of violent crimes to life in prison without parole compared to respondents who had a white offender in mind. Those told to envision a black teen also considered juvenile offenders to be more similar to adults in terms of culpability versus respondents who were told the offender was white.

The Stanford researchers purposefully chose a sample group of white Americans because "whites are statistically overrepresented on juries, in the legal field and in the judiciary." Notably, this study was conducted when the U.S. Supreme Court was considering if they will ban life without parole for juveniles in the system.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld life without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, and last year the court ruled that juvenile lifers would have that statute applied retroactively and be handed new sentences. As of July, Mississippi had 87 people who would need their sentences reviewed, as they had been sentenced as juveniles to life without parole, the Associated Press reported.

Still Children, Developmentally

The wall clock in Johnnie McDaniels' office at Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center is out of sight, but it keeps track of time so loudly you could almost feel every vibrating stroke of the second hand. McDaniels' office is just off the waiting room in the youth-detention center in Jackson where Elmore is likely being held, as a jailer at the Raymond facility told the Jackson Free Press.

McDaniels would neither confirm or deny if Elmore was there, hoping to preserve some of his confidentiality in light of the fact that every detail from his name, birthday, and even home address has been exposed on the Internet through both media and websites that host mugshots and even addresses of people who have been arrested. To get that mugshot down, even if charges are later dropped, the arrestee has the responsibility of contacting the mugshot database and potentially several others like it and paying a fee.

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Johnnie McDaniels is the executive director of the Henley-Young Juvenile Detention Center in Jackson. He has serious concerns about treatment of young suspects.

It costs as high as $50 to remove a single mugshot exposed to the public and revealed in simple Google searches.

Just a few weeks ago, you could have found Elmore in the Presidential Hills neighborhood. On a Monday afternoon, the sun low in the sky as the season would have it, young black boys seemingly the same age as Elmore played basketball in a nearby park—a rare maintained green space in Jackson. Presidential Hills is a quaint neighborhood with houses all built seemingly uniformly in size and structure, but varying in color and outer material.

Disinterested in talking to media, and seemingly confused about what is happening to their boy, the Elmores have a home in this neighborhood just a walkable distance from where Alexandria Love was shot.

Just weeks ago, Elmore and Love both attended Provine High School. Now, the Loves are forced to reckon with their first holiday season without their daughter, as they plan a funeral, and Elmore's family as he is kept locked up.

Time and permanency are concepts you come to understand better as an adult. Kids have a harder time dealing with the future and how present actions come into play—little girls don't understand that cutting off a Barbie doll's hair means she will never have those long fluid locks again.

For that reason, researchers debate juveniles' brain development as an indicator of how they should be treated in the eyes of the law. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that the adolescent brain does not begin to resemble adult brains until a youth person reaches the early 20s.

In a 2011 study on adolescent decision-making and legal culpability published in the Journal of Health Care Law and Policy, researcher Samantha Schad points out the inconsistency in the way researchers view adolescents' maturity.

Some experts believe juveniles have mature enough cognitive skills to make important decisions under controlled circumstances, while others believe that adolescents are psychosocially immature, which hinders their ability to "perceive future consequences and increasing their susceptibility to risk-taking and impulsivity."

When it comes to quick decisions, Schad adds, adolescents' immaturity can lead to bad decisions, especially in the criminal context "when most decisions to commit crime happen quickly." This perception of juveniles then affects how they're punished in the juvenile-justice system; more perceived maturity means more adult-like punishments.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court accepted adolescent brain science in its 2005 ruling to do away with the death penalty for juveniles. The majority wrote that there are three major differences between juveniles and adults that indicate they "cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders." First is the recognition of juveniles' comparative immaturity and irresponsibility; second is their susceptibility to peer pressure; and "the third broad difference is that the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult."

However, racial bias influences who people believe are culpable and who should take the blame for their actions. A 2013 Cornell study by Kristin Henning titled "Criminalizing Normal Adolescent Behavior in Communities of Color" points out just how disparities take place along the color line in juvenile court.

"When courts transfer youth to the adult system, it is equally well documented that black youth receive significantly more punitive sentences than white youth," Henning wrote. "Thus, while courts may forgive or excuse white youth for engaging in reckless adolescent behavior, courts often perceive youth of color as wild, uncontrollable, and morally corrupt and hold them fully culpable for their conduct."

McDaniels says these same principles of youth brain science apply even when something really tragic happens

"Juveniles, no matter how serious the offense they're charged with, do not necessarily understand that this could be something that complicates your life for the rest of your life," McDaniels said in his office in south Jackson. "They tend to rationalize things in a way that makes you understand that even though they committed an adult act, they don't process it the same way."

McDaniels, also an attorney, added that subsequent media scrutiny only hinders young people's capacity to function even further.

"When they are sensationalized, when they are put in the media, they are stigmatized, you do some serious—," he pauses and continues, "—that produces some serious mental health challenges for juveniles who are charged as adults."

Webb, the St. Augustine's professor, said that when examining treatment of juveniles in the media, he sees a difference in the precautions taken at every level of the system—including whether or not the child's identity will be released to media.

"What's funny is this," Webb told the Jackson Free Press. "If it's a white youth that's being accused of a heinous crime, then all of a sudden the authorities will take every precautionary measure to secure and not disclose that child's identity because again there's a lack of culpability—he's not an adult, you follow me?

"But when it's a black person, all of a sudden culpability is not even discussed. This person is just completely dangerous—it's because of his environment, he has no morals, it's because of poverty, a lack of father, and so on. So, you see this double standard."

Carousel of Injustice

"Super-predator" rhetoric emerged in the 1980s based on faulty "science" that indicated that many young men, particularly young men of color, were genetically inclined to be criminals and, thus, could not be rehabilitated. Media and politicians of both major parties latched onto the concept, using it as an excuse to pass tougher sentencing and discipline policies that many experts say led to mass incarceration of people of color, even as the crack epidemic was subsiding and youth crime was dropping in the nation.

During the same span, in 1989, the world was outraged when five teenagers pled guilty for allegedly brutalizing a white female jogger in Manhattan's Central Park. Then-business mogul Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in The New York Times advocating for the death sentence for the young men. After the Central Park Five served several years in prison, however, they were exonerated and released when the real murderer came forward, and it was determined that police had coerced the youth into taking the blame. This case serves as a harsh reminder that accused teenagers can actually be innocent long after their mugshots flash through Twitter.

As early as the President Richard Nixon administration of the 1970s, it became clear that racial biases and policies would continue to plague the criminal-justice system. Nixon began the "War on Drugs" that contributed to nationalized fear and prejudice through his rhetoric bashing drug users and toughening sentences.

Harper's Magazine in April 2016 resurfaced a quote from a 1994 interview with former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman that revealed the administration had a targeted goal to lock up African Americans.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying?" Ehrlichman told reporter Dan Baum. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

In the 1980s, politicians continued to associate blacks with crime as a way to secure voters—pandering to their heightened fear of black men. During the 1988 U.S. presidential election, a notorious ad juxtaposed former President George H.W. Bush's stance on crime with that of challenger Michael Dukakis.

The ad touted Bush as being tough on crime and supporting the death penalty, and shamed Dukakis for giving an African American man, Willie Horton, a weekend visitation pass from prison during which time he escaped and raped a woman. The ad displayed Horton's mugshot and details his criminal history in efforts to make Dukakis look soft on crime, but also to equate danger with black men.

Bush's drug czar and other conservatives quickly branded young men of color as "super-predators" who would multiply and who "posed a grave threat to society—a threat that advocates predicted would worsen unless drastic measures were taken," the National Academies of Sciences reported. Policies in the juvenile system went from rehabilitative to punitive in many states as a response to fear that was racially charged—even as early believers in the super-predator myth later renounced it.

From the late 1980s into the early 1990s, violent juvenile crime, particularly homicide, had spiked during the crack era. As research from 2013 on reforming juvenile justice by the National Academies of Sciences pointed out, this increase became the "catalyst for (juvenile justice) reform during this period"—making it tougher.

The fear of black youth came to a head when President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, ushering in tougher sentences on crack versus cocaine, three-strikes laws and zero-tolerance discipline, as well as the development of more private prisons.

This pivotal era in history ultimately gave way to something Webb calls the "merry-go-round," that media propelled and is kept spinning by money.

"So now you have this merry-go-round here," Webb said. "You keep shaping the image through the media," Webb said, "which justifies severe policies and programs in law, which in term feeds into the prison-industrial-complex. And when the stockholders get paid, and they will, then of course they're going to go back to those policy makers through their lobbyists and support their campaigns."

Solutions in 'The Sip'

Back at the Henley-Young detention center, McDaniels knows that the only thing he can control is the type of care and services juveniles receive in his center. But he is still concerned about what happens to juveniles charged as adults and sensationalized in the media sphere.

"The facts may not turn out to be what they are," McDaniels said. "But what you have is a kid that would have a pretty tough time trying to re-adjust trying to go back to school. He's been on the news for, you know, this sensational horrific act.

"There are a bunch of juveniles who come through this facility charged with all types of things, and in the end they were not guilty of them," he added.

This is why McDaniels thinks these adult charges should be evaluated on the back end, out of the public eye and through a youth court-driven system. He added that he is not viscerally against juveniles being charged as adults for violent crimes, but he does believe the system is unnecessarily complicated and that youth-court involvement upfront could help.

"I think there should be hearings and court proceedings by the youth-court judge, and there should be more court involvement in the process," he said.

This would also keep juveniles, no matter how they're charged, out of the public eye—anonymity is a privilege only afforded to the juveniles that do not get charged as adults.

"You should not have a juvenile charged as an adult, put into the adult system, take two to three years for that child to be indicted and charged, and they lost those two years in the system," he said.

McDaniels has run Henley-Young for the last two-and-a-half years. He brings a decade-long experience of prosecutorial work to his role as the chief caretaker of some of the most vulnerable and at-risk youth in the region. Those years showed him just how fast the revolving door spins kids in and out of the juvenile system and later into the adult system was in something he calls the "school-to-Henley-Young-to-Raymond-to-Parchman pipeline."

In the detention center, McDaniels has seen reading levels increase. He works to ensure that kids receive the mental care they may not have ever gotten otherwise. He estimates that in the last 10 years, the recidivism rate was probably about 50 percent, and within the last two since changing to a rehabilitative model, only about three of every 10 kids come back, usually for drug or alcohol issues, he said.

Henley-Young and the juvenile-justice system in Hinds County and the surrounding areas have gone through several changes in recent years mandated through a consent decree reached in 2012 after the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU and Jackson-based civil-rights attorney Robert McDuff sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections in November 2010, alleging a culture of violence and corruption that endangered youths.

The lawsuit came about to fix Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Leake County, a private prison that housed juvenile offenders charged with an adult crime until they were old enough to go to adult prison. The facility closed in the fall of 2016, with the former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher citing "budget constraints and the prison population." There was also significant controversy that preceded the closure.

The consent decree required MDOC to establish a "Youthful Offender Unit" that exists as a separate facility at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County. In June 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice settled with the Hinds County jail system, requiring a systemic turnaround of bad practices. Part of the DOJ's requirements were for better treatment of youthful offenders held in their facilities.

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Jody Owens II, the managing attorney for the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says juvenile suspects too often are treated poorly. Trip Burns/File Photo

Jody Owens of Southern Poverty Law Center said that the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, who are responsible for the jail and its budget, determined they do not have enough resources to put juveniles charged as adults in their own proper facility. So they decided to put those juveniles in Henley-Young instead of holding them in the county jail. McDaniels said as of September, juveniles charged as adults could be phased into Henley-Young in conjunction with the sheriff's department—providing a less-harmful environment than they previously would have faced.

It's a start, the experts say. "That's really exciting and groundbreaking for Mississippi to be doing this in Henley-Young of all places," Owens said. "Because of the myth of the 'super-predator' and the myth that these kids are different."

Read and comment on the JFP's ongoing coverage of youth-crime causes and solutions at jfp.ms/preventingviolence. Email city reporter Ko Bragg at ko@jacksonfreepress.com.


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