ACLU to Testify at House Committee Hearing on Harsh Juvenile Sentencing Laws

January 22, 2008

The Michigan House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. to address a package of bills (HB4402 –HB4405) that would prohibit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The ACLU of Michigan has worked with legislators to repeal these harsh sentences since 2003.

"We are encouraged that the House Judiciary Committee has decided to re-examine sentencing laws that treat children in this state so harshly.  Judges should be allowed to use their best judgment in deciding what type of punishment best fits the crime.  Unfortunately, that is not the case in Michigan and the result is that over 300 people have been sentenced as teenagers to life without parole.” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.

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 without the opportunity for parole. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, the U.S. allows these teenagers to be treated and punished in the same manner as adults, without any consideration of age, maturity or culpability. 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.

Currently there are more than 300 individuals serving life sentences in Michigan for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.  All 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 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.

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