ACLU Urges Governor Snyder to Veto Harsh Juvenile Life without Parole Bill

February 12, 2014

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan calls on Governor Rick Snyder to veto legislation passed today by the Michigan Legislature that fails to provide a meaningful opportunity for review to over 360 individuals serving unconstitutional mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children.

Through passage of Senate Bill 319, Michigan lawmakers attempted to reform Michigan’s unconstitutional juvenile sentencing laws to adhere to a recent United States Supreme Court decision.

However, according to the ACLU, the legislation passed today falls short as it is overly harsh, allows for life without parole sentences for juveniles moving forward and fails to provide an opportunity for review to those currently serving mandatory sentences.

“This legislation ignores the true intent of the U.S. Supreme Court by failing to provide a realistic opportunity or path to parole. By ignoring a child’s potential for rehabilitation and denying judges and juries any discretion, the state will continue to dole out unforgiving sentences that violate basic fairness and human rights principles,” said Shelli Weisberg, ACLU of Michigan legislative director. “It’s not too late for the Governor to exercise his veto power and send a clear message to the legislature that this bill is a regressive step back.”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for children under the age of 18 to be sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without any chance of parole, rebuking the precise sentencing scheme used in Michigan to incarcerate children without the possibility of parole.

The decision held that such laws are cruel, unusual and unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment.

“As the Supreme Court held, children should be sentenced in a way that holds them accountable for their mistakes while also recognizing their youthfulness and unique capacity to be rehabilitated,” said Weisberg. “Likewise, any sentencing reform must guarantee a meaningful opportunity for review for individuals currently serving such unconstitutional, mandatory life-without-parole sentences.”

Current Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults. If convicted, these juveniles are automatically sentenced to life without parole with no allowance for judicial discretion.

Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays. Most of the juvenile offenders have served their time in adult prisons, and neither the juries that heard their cases nor the judges who imposed their punishments had any discretion to mete out lesser sentences.