Children who murder should get a chance at parole

Nov 27, 2013

 CORRECTION: The headline was changed to avoid an inadvertent pun.

There are about 350 in Michigan who screwed up badly when they were teenagers. Most took part in murders. All are serving life without the possibility of parole.

Some of these young killers are probably vicious psychopaths who should never be allowed back into society. Others, however, were scared and stupid kids who, in some cases, did nothing except be there when an older friend, or, in a number of cases, a boyfriend, committed some terrible crime.

But they were all sentenced under Michigan law to life without the possibility of parole, and two years ago, you could have said, that was that. Except that isn’t the law anymore.

Seventeen months ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws automatically requiring a life sentence without the possibility of parole for kids under 18 are unconstitutional.

The court’s majority opinion says that such a sentence violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that even when a child is tried as an adult, the courts needed to take into consideration the “hallmark features” of youth, including “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

Well, you would think that would have been that. Except in Michigan, the authorities, including Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, have done nothing to review the cases of those in prison.

Schuette, a politically ambitious politician who seems obsessed with being seen as tough on crime, seems to think the court’s ruling applies only to future cases, and that kids sentenced in the past still have to rot in prison until they die, regardless of the circumstances. That is utterly absurd.

If something is declared unconstitutional, it always has been unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara knows that, and is clearly exasperated at the state.

Yesterday, he issued an order requiring the state of Michigan to review the cases of those inmates sentenced when they were juveniles to life without parole. Judge O’Meara ordered the state to come up with a system for processing these cases and determine who should be eligible for parole, and then schedule hearings “on a fair and reasonable basis,” for any prisoner who has served at least ten years and who applies for parole.

The judge’s order is overdue, and includes nothing not justified by common sense. But you wouldn’t know that from a spokesman for Schuette, who yesterday ignored the Supreme Court ruling and said he didn’t want to “revictimize the families” of the murder victims by giving their killers parole hearings. 

Just as bizarrely, a spokesman for Governor Rick Snyder said the state had dragged its feet because it was awaiting a “final ruling” from the courts. What could be more final than the Supreme Court?

Justice O’Meara is totally justified in demanding Michigan follow the law. By the way, don’t think he doesn’t know about suffering. Two weeks ago, a young lawyer who was his son and namesake was driving when he shouldn’t have been. Alcohol was apparently involved, and the younger Corbett O’Meara was killed.

Nothing can bring back the dead. But we have an obligation to the living to follow the law, and Michigan needs to live up to it.