Hope for Michigan Juveniles Condemned to Die Behind Bars

POST BY Dan Korobkin Deputy Legal Director

Matthew Bentley was 14 years old in 1997 when he broke into a house he thought was unoccupied. While rummaging for valuables, he was confronted by the owner. That's when Matthew shot and killed her with a gun he found in the house.

At the time of his crime, Matthew couldn't legally smoke, drive or join the military, but he would receive a mandatory adult sentence — life without the possibility of parole.

Matthew Bentley shares his story in an ACLU podcast

During Matthew's trial, the judge, according to Michigan law, was not allowed to consider his age, capacity for rehabilitation or his tough home life. (Matthew's father and older brother were both in jail for molesting his siblings.)

Instead, the one and only punishment the judge was permitted to impose on this 14-year-old was to condemn him to live the rest of his life—and die—in a Michigan prison.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for children are cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court did not explicitly say in its opinion how the states should apply the new ruling to Matthew and thousands of other children serving these unconstitutional sentences.

So Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette did the unthinkable: He refused to provide Matthew and other juvenile lifers in Michigan with any opportunity for review, and treated them as though the Supreme Court’s new ruling had never happened.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court stepped in again and held that its 2012 ruling is retroactive. All children serving mandatory life sentences must be given an opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable of being of rehabilitated, and therefore should not die in prison.

This is terrific news for Matthew and the other Michigan prisoners that the ACLU is representing to challenge juvenile life without parole.

ACLU of Michigan presents: Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences in Michigan

Michigan incarcerates the second highest number of people in the country serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. In our state, children as young as 14 can be tried as adults and sentenced to life behind bars. That means they will never be looked at again — not when they are 20 years old, 30 years old or 60 years old.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court has now reaffirmed that such draconian sentences must become a thing of the past, and that prisoners currently serving such sentences must now be given a second chance. This gives hope to Matthew and hundreds of others in Michigan — hope that one day they will be able to come home, hope that one day we will stop treating them like throwaway kids.

Instead, the one and only punishment the judge was permitted to impose on this 14-year-old was to condemn him to live the rest of his life—and die—in a Michigan prison.

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