Lansing Watchdog: Fighting for a Second Chance for Juvenile Lifers

POST BY Shelli Weisberg Legislative Director

ACLU at the Michigan Capitol – May 16, 2016

In January 2016, the U.S.. Supreme Court settled an outstanding question in the interpretation of their series of promising opinions addressing the moral and legal question of whether juvenile defendants in our criminal justice system should be treated in the same manner as adults. 

To be clear, that line of decisions addreses only the harshest of treatment – those cases in which a person under the age of 18 has been sentenced to death or to a life term without the possibility of parole. The court was divided 5-4 in March 2005 when it abolished capital punishment for anyone who was under the age of 18 in Roper v. Simmons. Still at issue was the growing number of juvenile defendants sentenced to life without parole, effectively a death sentence for the over 2,500 young offenders serving this unforgiving sentence in United States.  Michigan is responsible for more than 360 such cases. 

In May 2010, the Supreme Court said in Graham v. Florida that a life without parole sentence could only be imposed on a juvenile who was convicted of homicide. Two years later, the Court held in Miller v. Alabama that a mandatory life sentence without a possibility of parole for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  In this decision, the Supreme Court determined that young offenders must be afforded a review of their youthful status based on a list of factors (“Miller Factors”) that must be considered to mitigate their punishment.

In Michigan, we were ecstatic.  This meant the more than 360 juvenile offenders, almost half of whom were in prison for crimes in which they were an accessory to murder and did not “pull the trigger”, would have a second chance at life. The ACLU of Michigan worked for over a decade to convince judges, legislators, and Governors to do what the Supreme Court finally accomplished.

But remarkably, a group of attorneys general, including Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, simply refused to provide thousands of juvenile lifers with any opportunity for parole review as though the Supreme Court’s ruling had never happened.  

In the meantime, the ACLU continued our work to convince legislators to change our sentencing laws so all juvenile lifers would be given an opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable of being rehabilitated, and therefore should not die in prison.  Michigan incarcerates the second highest number of juvenile lifers in the country, including children who were as young as 14 when they were sentenced to die in prison.

While awaiting a final decision on retroactivity Michigan passed a resentencing law, instead of parole eligibility preferred by the ACLU, which could be applied retroactively depending on the Supreme Court’s decision.  Thankfully, on January 25, 2016, in the 6-3 majority opinion Montgomery v. Louisiana , the Court confirmed retroactive application of Miller. The hundreds of individuals currently serving a mandatory life sentence for crimes they committed when they were under the age of 18 would now have a chance to prove that they have grown and matured, and that they deserve a second chance at life. 

It’s been four years since Miller declared mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional and not one single inmate in Michigan has had an opportunity to seek relief under that decision.  The federal court could still overturn Michigan’s law but as it stands, prosecutors have until July 25 to designate those juvenile lifer’s who will face a resentencing hearing in which they may again be sentenced to life without possibility of parole, and who will be resentenced instead to a minimum of 25 years to 60 years in prison.  Under this scheme, many juvenile lifers will spend the rest of their lives in prison. 

There is a better way. The juvenile lifers could be made eligible for parole.  A special parole hearing with trained professionals in the application of the Miller Factors could evaluate each to determine if they are ready to be released. This is a quicker and far less costly proposal than requiring resentencing hearings, and it is certainly the most expedient way to right the wrong we have imposed on hundreds of juvenile offenders in Michigan.  

This is a quicker and far less costly proposal than requiring resentencing hearings, and it is certainly the most expedient way to right the wrong we have imposed on hundreds of juvenile offenders in Michigan.

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