Report Details Inequities in Michigan's Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

May 15, 2012

Today, advocates, clergy and family members of individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole for crimes they committed as children joined Second Chances 4 Youth to release a report documenting the systemic disadvantages facing juveniles in the adult criminal justice. “Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth,” was released in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan at a news conference at Lansing’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“As parents, teachers and older siblings, we inherently understand that kids are fundamentally different than adults,” said Deborah LaBelle, the principal author of the report. “They are impulsive, inexperienced, vulnerable to mistreatment, and are not able to easily escape or cope with abuse and other trauma. While there is no denying that youth must be held accountable for actions, as a state, we can do better than sentencing them to die in prison.”

To date, 371 young people have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Michigan. This includes more than 100 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole who were present or committed a felony when a homicide was committed by someone else.

“We are compounding the tragedy of serious crime by virtually throwing away the lives of these children,” said Reverend Joe Summers of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, “The idea that youth can never change flies in the face of all that we know and is against any sense of moral redemption.”

The 38-page report explores the fiscal and human costs of juvenile life without parole sentences and the disproportionate punishments and documented racial disparities found in the plea bargaining process for youth accused of certain crimes. The findings rely on publicly available data produced by the Michigan Department of Corrections and survey responses from individuals originally charged with first-degree homicide in Michigan for crimes committed as youth since 1975.

The report documents the many challenges youth face in the criminal justice system, including that:

  • Race seriously affects the plea bargaining process for adolescents. Youth accused of a homicide offense where the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was a person of color. In addition, there are clear geographic disparities with Oakland, Calhoun, Saginaw and Kent Counties offering lessor sentences to youth at significantly lower rates than the state average.
  • Juveniles reject plea offers at much higher rates than adults; therefore adults receive lessor sentences for comparable crimes. Juveniles are less equipped to negotiate plea offers because of their immaturity, inexperience, and failure to realize the value of a plea deal. Many report that they did not fully understand the nature of the charges they were facing, the crime they were on trial for, or the meaning of parole.
  • Attorneys who have represented youth convicted and sentenced to life without parole in Michigan have an abnormally high rate of attorney discipline from the State Bar of Michigan. About 5 percent of all attorneys are reprimanded, however 38 percent of counsel representing youth sentenced to life without parole have been publicly sanctioned or disciplined for egregious violations of ethical conduct.

Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole. In the last five years, there has been a downward trend in imposing such sentences across the nation. Michigan is one of only six states deviating from this national movement. Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger.

The report was made possible by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation – Working with Visionaries on the Frontlines of Social Change Worldwide.

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