With one landmark ruling in 2012, the United States Supreme Court made it clear: mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for teenagers under 18 are unconstitutional. They said the sentence is considered "cruel and unusual punishment" under the 8th Amendment.
The justices cited research on brain development to determine their ruling.
From the majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama:
Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.
After that ruling, there was a lot of debate about whether it applied to those inmates who had already been sentenced this way.
(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)
It was a big deal, especially in those states that sentenced a lot of teens under 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Michigan is second only to Pennsylvania in the number of so-called “juvenile lifers” in its prisons. Life without the possibility of parole was a sentence handed down to a lot of teens convicted of terrible crimes – especially after Michigan Gov. Engler adopted his “punks prison” policy in the mid-90s.
Studies have shown that this sentence disproportionately fell on blacks.
After the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Michigan was among those states that fought to keep the ruling from applying to those already in prison. There were bills drafted to keep the ruling from applying to those already sentenced this way. And Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was one of those leading the charge against keeping the ruling from applying retroactively.
In January of 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court settled that argument too.
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In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court ruled its earlier decision did apply retroactively.
This has meant that the more than 360 so-called juvenile lifers in Michigan -- the second-highest total in the nation -- are eligible for re-sentencing, and possibly a second chance.
The U.S. Supreme Court said a life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentence should only be reserved for those who show “irreparable corruption.”
Since that ruling, Michigan has been criticized for being slow to respond.
Michael Mittlestat, the Deputy Director of Michigan’s State Appellate Defender Office, wrote an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press:
Of the approximately 363 juvenile lifers in the state, prosecutors are seeking life without parole again for 229, more than 60%. Prosecutors in many Michigan counties decided that not a single juvenile lifer convicted in their courts deserved even a chance at parole.
To date, of the 363 juvenile lifers in Michigan, 24 have received a new, term-of-years sentence. One has been released. (You can learn more about William Washington’s story here.)
This interactive graphic shows where juvenile lifers in Michigan have received a new sentence.
Michigan Radio looked at the state's juvenile lifers in a special series. See the entire series here.