ACLU of Michigan Cheers State House Passage of Juvenile Justice Bills

December 04, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan applauded the State House of Representatives today for passing a package of bills (HB 4402 –HB 4405) that would prohibit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There are currently more than 300 individuals serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as children. The Senate may take up the bills as early as next week.

"The House recognizes that we can't afford to continue sending children to adult prison for life. This is the first step of many to correct the injustices of Michigan’s juvenile justice system,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “This package of bills is not a ‘get out of jail free card’ -- It simply aims to make these child offenders eligible for parole consideration and allows judges to use discretion when deciding what type of punishment best fits the crime.”

In January, the ACLU of Michigan along with the Michigan Catholic Conference and dozens of juvenile justice supporters testified at a House Judiciary Committee meeting urging members to support this package of bills.

Currently, the United States sentences teenagers, as young as 13, to spend the rest of their lives in prison without the opportunity for parole. The United States stands out as the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibiting these mandatory sentences.

All juvenile offenders in Michigan 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 types of 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 even if they did not commit the crime themselves, but were merely present when someone was murdered.

In its recent “shadow report” to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the ACLU cites Michigan’s mandatory sentencing of youthful offenders to adult prison without the possibility of parole as an example of the pervasive institutionalized, systemic and structural racism in America. The 215 page report, Race & Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice, claims that an overwhelming majority of those sentenced are minorities; 69 percent are African American, although African Americans account for only 15 percent of Michigan’s youth population.

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.

In 2004, the ACLU of Michigan released their report, “Second Chances,” which calls attention to these policies. Legislation to correct these laws was introduced in Lansing a year after the report was published. In 2006, a report released by the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed “concern” over state laws that allow juvenile offenders to be incarcerated for life and asked the U.S. to ensure that no juvenile is sentenced to life without parole.

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: