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Court says life for juveniles should be rare. Longtime corrections official says that's about right.

Dec 13, 2016

All this week, we’re looking at juvenile lifers in Michigan -- those inmates sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were minors.

Michigan ranks second in the number of prisoners who fit this classification. There are more than 360 juvenile lifers in Michigan, and a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases has meant that Michigan has to take a second look at the sentences these inmates were given.

We wanted to get the perspective on these juvenile lifers from someone who knows the corrections system intimately.

(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)

Patricia Caruso is the former Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. She served there from 2003 through 2010. She was also a Warden at the Chippewa Valley Correctional Facility and Camp Pellston, and she's a past President of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents.

Caruso supports the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that juveniles should not automatically be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, saying when teens grow into adults, they can mature.

"The juvenile who committed the crime is not the adult who's standing in front of you."

"Over the course of my tenure in corrections, I came to know many — men primarily — who started their sentences as teenagers," she says. "The juvenile who committed the crime is not the adult who's standing in front of you."

Caruso says prison facilities are not designed for young people.

"The system really is not designed or equipped on any level to deal with them, and that's what part of the problem is," she says. “When you have young people, you are either are looking at someone who, perhaps, is more vulnerable in that population, or exactly the opposite – who is a big troublemaker, because that’s how teenagers are.”

Because of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, juvenile lifers are supposed to have an opportunity to argue for a new sentence. The High Court ruled that "life without the possibility of parole" should only be used in the rarest of cases.

Caruso agrees with the Court’s ruling.

"I am comfortable when I hear the Supreme Court say it should be the rarest of cases. My professional experience tells me that's about right," she says.

The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that Michigan has to review all the “life without the possibility of parole” sentences handed down to those who were convicted in as juveniles. That means more than 360 cases have to be reviewed.

Caruso says the decision on whether juvenile lifers are a threat to society should be decided on a case by case basis. Especially since many factors — including defense representation, community and family issues — can influence the path a person takes.

"It's easy to say we're going to eliminate parole, then I'm not responsible. Something bad will still happen, but no one can blame me," she says of officials who avoid parole hearings for juvenile lifers.

Caruso says juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole don't get access to the same rehabilitation resources as parole-eligible prisoners do.

"They do not have access currently to many of the things that people that are parole-eligible would have."

“While people who are serving life sentences have various types of opportunities, they do not have access currently to many of the things that people that are parole-eligible would have,” she says.

She says prisoners are classified in Michigan based on the length of their sentence and on how they’ve served their time.

“Michigan, unlike many states, does classify prisoners. It’s a combination of the length of their sentence and how they’ve done their time - how they’re doing their time. And that’s a good thing, how that happens. But it still means if you are serving life without the possibility of parole, there are certain levels of custody that you will never get to. And that means there are resources and programs and opportunities that you would not be exposed to.”

So juvenile lifers in Michigan have not been exposed to the same rehabilitation programs other prisoners have had access to.

“We like to say that 95% of the people that are incarcerated are going home. So, it just makes sense,” she says. “It’s common sense to think that you are going to prioritize your resources for those who are going to be coming back to our communities.”