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It’s 'basic decency' to give juvenile lifers a shot at parole

Dec 16, 2016


Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court handed down a directive saying that all prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as minors, so-called “juvenile lifers,” should get the chance to have their sentences reconsidered.

The Court, in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 and in Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, said that the sentence of life without parole should be reserved only for the “rarest” of cases in which the juvenile is found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

Some 360 Michigan inmates fall into this category. But so far, Michigan prosecutors have filed motions to uphold life without parole sentences in nearly 60 percent of these cases.

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

Sixty percent certainly seems to be more than the “rarest” standard set forth by the Supreme Court, critics argue.

Deborah LaBelle is Ann Arbor attorney leading the ACLU of Michigan's Juvenile Life Without Parole initiative. She says Michigan prosecutors are ignoring the Supreme Court.

LaBelle told us that, while the input from victims and their families should be considered, it shouldn’t be the only factor in determining an offender’s sentence. Many prosecutors tend to disagree. Here’s Muskegon County prosecutor D.J. Hilson:

If they were of the opinion that they wanted to see this young lady at the time go away for the rest of her life, then that would be the course that we would follow. And if today they still have those strong feelings, I'm never going to go against my victims' families wishes.

LaBelle argues that it isn’t a prosecutor’s job to solely advocate on behalf of victims or their families.

"Prosecutors are elected by all of us. Under their ethical obligations they're particular ministers of justice and their obligations are certainly to listen to and respect the feelings of victims, but victims don't set the constitutional bar on what's an appropriate sentence," she said.

"The United States Supreme Court rules, and it trumps Michigan law."

She explained that prosecutors have an ethical obligation to only pursue charges and sentences that have a probable cause, and they should not let a victim’s family’s opinion influence that decision.

It's not the victim's family that determines whether a youth gets an opportunity for release. It's whether the prosecutor can show by beyond a reasonable doubt that they are the rare and uncommon youth ... who is irreparable and can never be rehabilitated. That is the standard and the prosecutors are eschewing their responsibility … to society, to the court and to their ethical obligations, if they eschew all of those responsibilities in favor of one person who says, no, I want them to stay in prison for life.

Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton believes the Supreme Court ruling clashes with Michigan’s law on victims' rights:

You can't factor out the victims, and with all due respect to the United States Supreme Court, I don't think that it really factored in victims' rights when it made its decision, and because Michigan law and Michigan's Constitution requires us to factor that in, I think rightfully so, and I think correctly all of the prosecutors who have these cases did so.

LaBelle’s advice to prosecutors: “Read the law.”

“You can’t have ‘with all due respect to the United States Supreme Court’ when you say, 'But we’re going to do it a different way,'” she said. “The United States Supreme Court rules, and it trumps Michigan law.”

She added that Michigan law actually forbids a court from considering victims’ comments in sentencing.

"What is relevant is that they get their say, they get to be participants in the system. They get to be involved. That they get to do under the victims' rights. That has nothing to do with what's an appropriate constitutional sentence and it has nothing to do with the prosecutor's obligations," LaBelle said.

So much of the question around these juvenile lifer cases centers on what exactly “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible” mean.

According to LaBelle, “It may be like pornography: We know what it isn’t.” Here's what she says: 

Most of us don’t have a stake in any of this because we and our relatives aren’t involved in serious crimes that lead to a life sentence. But LaBelle argues there’s ample reason we should still care.

"I think everyone should care because we're talking about some basic decency here."

What we're doing here as a society is we're taking responsibility for children, many children who we have failed. The majority of these children committed their offense when they were either expelled or suspended or unable to attend school. Many of them lived in places where they themselves were the victims of deep abuse, sexual or physical.

LaBelle says that we know that adults, the majority in this state who are charged with first degree [murder] plea to much lesser counts and serve much less time

We also know that they are not automatically going to get out. They still have to go to the parole board, and the parole board has to make a determination that they are no risk to public safety,” LaBelle said. “That's all we're talking about here. And that minor step for children, I think everyone should care because we're talking about some basic decency here.

Listen to our conversation above for more.

There are more than 350 prisoners in Michigan sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. Michigan’s Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance? is Michigan Radio’s week-long series looking at juvenile lifers in Michigan, and efforts to re-sentence many of them.

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