High Rate of Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences Examined by ACLU of Michigan

September 14, 2004

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan released a report today to call attention to the growing number of juveniles living out life sentences in Michigan prisons with no hope of rehabilitation or release. The report outlines the issue of life without parole sentences given to juveniles including recommendations for a response to juvenile crime.

"Over 300 children have been given these unforgiving sentences,” said Deborah Labelle, the Ann Arbor attorney who directed the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU.  “Life Without Parole sentences ignore the very real differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances upon which this country was built."

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 casts doubts on the cognitive capacity of adolescents and teens raising serious questions about juveniles’ ability to understand criminal consequences for their actions, and their ability to understand the judicial system or cooperate in their own defense. 

“This report illustrates the need to re-examine the laws that allow children to be sentenced to life imprisonment in adult prisons when they can’t legally used alcohol, serve on juries or be drafted because they are presumed not to have the capacity to handle adult responsibilities,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

The automatic, mandatory and permanent sentencing laws in Michigan leaves no room to reasonably assess the juvenile’s growth or maturity.  In too many cases, the cost, both financial and to society, of keeping these children in prison cannot be justified by the benefit in terms of public safety.

The report recommends that individual assessments of the need for continued incarceration and proportional punishment be considered to allow these individuals the opportunity to rejoin and contribute to society, using the resources for efforts that are proven to reduce youth crime.

The recommendations in the report also include:

  • Amending the law to provide that juveniles convicted of homicide offenses may receive a sentence not exceeding 25 years;
  • Amending the law to eliminate automatic and judicial   waivers to Circuit Court;
  • Amending the law to limit disposition options to juvenile or “blended” sentences, such that no juvenile may be sent to prison before his or her eighteenth birthday;
  • Transfering all juveniles currently under the age of 18 to juvenile facilities and commute to “blended” sentences;
  • Reducing existing life without parole sentences to maximum of 25 years; and
  • Restoring parole eligibility for all who served at least 15 years.

The imposition of life without parole on minor children is explicitly prohibited by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000, but never ratified by the U.S. and is widely considered a violation of international law and fundamental human rights.  Despite this, Michigan, and forty other states, permit these sentences to be imposed on juveniles.  Michigan is one of thirteen states that have no lower age limit for life sentences without possibility of parole.  

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

The JEHT Foundation was established in April 2000 to support its donors' interests in human rights, social justice and community building. The name JEHT stands for the core values that underlie the Foundation's mission: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance.

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