Natural Life: A Look at Michigan’s Juvenile Lifers

February 23, 2015

Barbara Hernandez was only 16 years old when she was tried as an adult and convicted of murder after her abusive boyfriend killed a man.

Barbara entered prison as a teenager more than two decades ago. Without changes to our laws, she will remain behind bars until the end of her natural life without any possibility of parole.

I learned of Barbara’s story through viewing Natural Life, an experimental documentary and art installation. The work both documents and reenacts the stories of five Michigan residents serving controversial juvenile life without parole sentences. The sentencing scheme is frequently referred to as JLWOP.

Sponsored by the ACLU of Michigan, the film is currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit (MOCAD) through March 28th. That this film and work of art is on display at MOCAD is particularly poignant for the state of Michigan, which has the second highest number of juvenile lifers (about 360) in the nation.

At the exhibit, I watched as people listened to the stories of these individuals, who’ve witnessed the rippling effects juvenile incarceration has on their families and communities. It’s impossible to leave the exhibit without questioning the harsh nature of these sentences which are given to children.

For far too many, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

Here at the ACLU of Michigan, we are advocating for sentencing reform measures that would take into account children’s lesser culpability at the time of the crime as well as their capacity for change and growth. A criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation would allow our youngest prisoners a chance to avoid the harshest consequences.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has been compelled to review the Constitutional challenges these terminal sentences given to children raise, and its rulings have recognized the need for drastice reform of juvenile sentencing law. In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court rendered life without parole sentences for non-homicidal offenses unconstitutional.

In 2012, the Court went even further in Miller v. Alabama, ruling that mandatory juvenile sentences to life without parole are unconstitutional even in cases of homicide. In the ruling citing the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In its 2012 decision the court said that individual consideration of several youthful factors, those differentiating children from adults, including “the family and home environment” is required before the issuance of such a sentence.

Though progress has been made at the national level, the injustice of juvenile life sentences without parole still remains.

Several states—including Illinois and Texas—have rightly realized that some people serving these now-illegal life sentences should be given the opportunity to demonstrate to a parole board that they have been rehabilitated. Those currently serving natural life sentences in Michigan have not been so lucky.

In July 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against the retroactive application of Miller. This illogical ruling has left 300 prisoners serving juvenile life without parole sentences in our state’s prisons.

Michigan must move forward. We must provide a balance between dispensing justice and offering young inmates a meaningful chance to turn their lives around.

Denying this hope to our state’s youngest offenders is unjust and inconsistent with our justice system’s values. It is entirely unnatural.

By Sarah Goomar, ACLU of Michigan Fellow