Michigan has 363 prisoners who have been sentenced to mandatory life without parole, the second most in the nation. Early in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that all of these prisoners must have their sentences reconsidered.
Currently, only a fraction of these cases have been reevaluated and resentenced.
The process of resentencing these juvenile offenders requires much more than a simple file review and hearing. Many documents have to be organized and processed in order for attorneys and judges to properly evaluate each case.
The Michigan Department of Corrections is struggling to keep up.
Chris Gautz is with the MDOC. He says for the entire state of Michigan, only one person has been handling the majority of the paperwork.
“And so far, over the past three or four months, we’ve processed more than 1.2 million pages of documents that we supplied to prosecutors and defense attorneys around the state,” Gautz says.
(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)
The process began this summer, and proved to be fairly complicated. Some counties only had one or two cases, but others, like Kent and Wayne, had more than 100. The MDOC had to get the correct files related to each case in the hands of county prosecutors so the resentencing process could begin.
“It’s not just as simple as pulling out a file, and putting it on top of a file, and putting it on top of a scanner, and letting all the pages shoot through the machine and scan it in,” says Gautz. “These are in some cases very old files. So you’re talking about files that have documents on wax paper, different sizes and different sheets, so it’s a matter of going through each of these by hand.”
And that doesn’t even include medical records, which are used to update the courts and prosecutors on a prisoner’s mental and physical health.
Gautz says that while some of these files are small, the files for prisoners who have been behind bars for decades can really pile up. One prisoner's medical file contained 25,000 pages, he says.
Gautz says there has been no additional funding allocated to or requested by MDOC in order to cover the costs of this extra work.
Life in prison can be very different with no hope of parole
Many of the juvenile lifers in Michigan have been in prison for quite a while -- the average length is 22.7 years. Most of these prisoners haven’t had the same opportunities for training and education as their peers who will someday re-enter society.
But once juvenile lifers have their cases re-evaluated, a new sentence to a term of years could make more resources available.
Gautz says, “There’s a number of programs and they’re all tailored to fit the specific needs of that individual prisoner. But we also triage these programs while prisoners are inside. And so for these individuals who were given a life sentence, they weren’t at the top of the list to receive these programs.”
Once an offender is given a chance at parole, they're placed at the top of those lists so they can be prepared to someday face the parole board.
This requires a lot of adjustment - for MDOC, the prisoners, and their families. But Gautz is optimistic that once these prisoners are granted the hope of parole, MDOC can get them ready to reenter society.
“We’re going to be looking at all the things that we can do, whether it’s providing housing, job assistance, any number of things to be able to make sure that these offenders are successful once they get out. These individuals have been given a second shot and we want them to be successful and we want to make sure that they don’t commit crimes when they get out, that the community stays safe.”