ACLU Applauds Introduction of Bills to Reform Juvenile Life Without Parole

October 25, 2005

One year after the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan released their report, “Second Chances,” which calls attention to the over 300 juveniles living out life sentences in Michigan prisons with no hope of rehabilitation or release, legislation was introduced in Lansing today to correct the laws that punish children as adults.

“Children are not disposable. We need to re-examine the laws that take away the ability for judges to examine each case and determine the most appropriate punishment for those involved in crimes,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss. "More than 300 people, sentenced when they were children, are sitting in adult prisons today.”

State Senator Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) announced the introduction of a legislation package designed to guarantee appropriate sentencing of minors convicted of severe crimes. The four-bill package that would prohibit the sentencing of an individual convicted of a crime before the age of 18 to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). 

“This is not to say that anyone who is involved in a horrible crime should not be punished, but we must provide a mechanism to determine if there is a chance they could eventually become productive members of society,” said Sen. Brater. “We can not just toss them away.”

Michigan appears ready for changes in the sentencing laws. According to a poll conducted by the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, there is strong public support for reforming laws that allow minors to be sentenced to life without parole. In the state-wide poll, 72% of respondents said they believed adolescents under the age of 18 who commit violent offences are strong candidates for rehabilitation. 

“The preliminary results of this study suggest that the people in the state of Michigan are unequivocally against locking up children for life, “said Terrence Allen, Assistant Professor in the School of Social work and co-author of the above-mentioned study. The full report on the poll is expected to be released in mid-November.

Those who participated in the poll do not appear to be the only people in Michigan who believe there needs to be reform. Judges in several districts have expressed deep displeasure with limited sentencing options. The Honorable Leopold Borello from Saginaw has specifically criticized the mandatory provision of the current legislation, which allows the court no discretion whatsoever. 

In Michigan and many other states, juveniles can be transferred to adult courts and sentenced to a life without any chance of parole no matter what their age or consideration of the circumstances of their offense. Recent research, recognized by the Supreme Court in its opinion prohibiting the death penalty for juveniles, casts doubts on the cognitive capacity of teens to understand the criminal consequences for their actions and their ability to understand the judicial system or cooperate in their own defense. 

Another report issued jointly by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch earlier this month drew national attention to this issue and pointed out that Michigan has the third highest rate of sentencing child offenders to life without parole in the country. In fact, the United States is one of very few countries in the world that even permits children to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. 

“It’s important to recognize that some of the people sitting in prison right now have been there for many years and are not the same people who were sentenced twenty or thirty years ago," said Deborah Labelle, the Ann Arbor attorney who directed the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU. “Many of them were also not the ones who pulled the trigger –they deserve a second chance, and at the very least, a second look.”

The Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative was made possible as a result of the generous grant given by the JEHT Foundation to form the to investigate the issues surrounding the growing number of children sentenced to life sentences without the possibility of parole. 

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