Crime
1:15 pm
Thu March 15, 2012

Supreme Court cases could determine the fate of Michigan's youngest criminals

Michigan has one of the country's highest numbers of "juvenile lifers"---prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as minors---359 total.

That includes six who were only 14 when they committed their crimes.

These numbers come from an in-depth report from John Barnes at MLive.com.

Barnes profiled those six, including TJ Tremble, who has spent half his life, 14 years, in a state prison following a murder conviction. Tremble has no hope of release because of a mandatory life sentence.

Now, for the youngest of young offenders at least, there could be a path toward release. That's because of a pair of upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases involving young offenders.

Neither of the cases set to go before the court next week involve Michigan directly, but according to the New York Times, they will test the constitutionality of sentencing 14-year-olds to life in jail, looking specifically at the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Times writes that the upcoming cases represent two different scenarios:

  1. In one case, an Arkansas man, Kuntrell Jackson participated in a 1999 video store robbery with two other minors. He was 14. The robbery resulted in the murder of a store clerk, but it was one of his accomplices, not Jackson himself who committed the killing.
  2. The other case centers on Evan Miller of Alabama, also 14 at the time of his crime, but Miller was convicted for having a direct hand in a murder.

According to the Times, the court could rule to overturn sentences in both cases, banning life without parole for all offenders 14 and younger.

Or the cases could be split, allowing  the court to "draw a further distinction — between offenders who participated in crimes that led to killings and those who actually committed the killings."

MLive.com's Barnes writes that another possibility for the court would be to target states like Michigan that have mandatory sentencing laws.

These rules prohibit the consideration of age when sentencing juvenile offenders to life sentences.

Barnes writes:

That’s what Deborah LaBelle believes the court will do.

“Only 11 states have mandatory life without parole, without any consideration of the effects of youth,” said LaBelle, who represents many of the state’s juvenile lifers on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “The majority of states have mechanisms to take that into consideration”

In a related piece, the New York Times suggests that past court rulings have already started to chip away at harsh sentences for juvenile offenders.

Within the past decade the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for juvenile criminals and stopped the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole for crimes not involving a killing.

The Times says the logic of these two past rulings could apply in the upcoming cases as well:

The majority opinions in both were written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who said teenagers deserved more lenient treatment than adults because they are immature, impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure and able to change for the better over time. Justice Kennedy added that there was an international consensus against sentencing juveniles to life without parole, which he said had been “rejected the world over.”

Assuming the court does rule to ban  sentences of life without parole for young offenders, release would be far from certain.

Barnes writes:

Such a ruling would only guarantee regular parole review. In Michigan, that begins after 15 years behind bars.

Even then, few meet the parole board's favor. Only about eight prisoners per year serving parolable life are released, according to the Department of Corrections. The parole board interviews between 400 to 500 parolable lifers a year.

For the moment, the future of Michigan's juvenile lifers remains behind bars.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom