ACLU Applauds Supreme Court Limits on Cruel Juvenile Sentences, Encourages Michigan to Follow Suit

May 17, 2010

Detroit – In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without any chance of parole. The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, states that such sentences violate the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Supreme Court recognized today that it is cruel to pass a final judgment and dole out our harshest sentence possible to children, who have an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “Today, we call on our state to take the next step and appoint a special parole board to reevaluate the cases of juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If we’ve learned anything from today’s decision, it is that at the very least, children deserve a second chance.”

Although the decision directly addresses the case of Terrance Jamar Graham, a Florida teenager imprisoned for committing a non-homicide crime, the decision could have far-reaching implications for the more than 300 individuals serving mandatory life sentences in Michigan for crimes committed before their 18th birthday. This includes more than 100 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole and did not commit the murder themselves, but were present or committed a felony when a murder was committed by someone else.

Graham was convicted of robbery in Jacksonville, Fla. when he was 16 and received probation. The following year he was arrested again for taking part in a home invasion. The judge in the case then sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court called this sentence an "especially harsh punishment" for a juvenile and said that states must give defendants "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." The decision also cited the "diminished moral culpability" of juveniles as a factor.

According to the ruling, “Under this sentence a juvenile offender will on average serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender. A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only.”

Last year, the Michigan House Judiciary Committee held hearings to address a package of bills (HB 4518, 4594, 4595 and 4596) that would prohibit the mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2008, a previous package of bills passed the State House, but stalled in the State Senate. The ACLU of Michigan has worked with legislators to repeal these harsh sentences since 2003.

“These bills provide the necessary reform to bring Michigan to the recognition that ‘from a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult,’” said Deborah LaBelle, a human rights attorney and director of the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. “The bills do not guarantee release but simply make child offenders eligible for parole consideration and allow judges to use discretion when deciding what type of punishment is appropriate given the lesser culpability of youth.”

In Michigan, many of the juvenile offenders are serving their time in adult prisons and neither the juries that heard their cases, nor the judges who issued their sentences, had any discretion to mete out lesser sentences. These sentences exist in 43 states, but five states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida and California account for two-thirds of the imprisoned youth. Michigan, however, takes the law a step further and requires that juveniles convicted of “felony murder” be sentenced to life without parole.

Although, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) explicitly prohibits these harsh sentences, the United States sentences teenagers, as young as 13, to spend the rest of their lives in prison. The United States stands out as the only country, besides Somalia, that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibiting these mandatory sentences. Today, the U.S. is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.

Michigan residents appear to be ready for changes to these sentencing laws. According to a state-wide poll conducted by the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, 72 percent of respondents said they believed adolescents under the age of 18 who commit violent offences are strong candidates for rehabilitation. In addition, 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.

To read about a few of the young men and women who are currently serving “life without parole” sentences in Michigan prisons, click here.

To read “Second Chances,” a publication of the ACLU of Michigan highlighting the issue of JLWOP, click here.

A copy of the ACLU’s report on the U.S. government’s report to CERD can be found online at: http://www.aclu.org/cerd

Related Issues: