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Juvenile lifer debate started as a result of drug crime wave

Dec 12, 2016

There are 363 Michigan inmates in state prisons closely watching how the state of Michigan and local prosecutors implement two U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The decisions struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles. The lifers were convicted of murder and sentenced in the late 1980s and 1990s under a get-tough approach to juvenile crime.

The laws were a response to a wave of violent crime that swept the state and the country.

Today, Tony Tague focuses on menus and dishing out pizza and pasta at his Italian restaurant in Spring Lake, a resort town tucked between a small chain of lakes in west Michigan. But 30 years ago, Tague was the Democratic prosecutor in neighboring Muskegon County, and grappling with a crack cocaine crime wave that swept the Interstate-96 corridor from Detroit to Muskegon.

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

“We saw a lot of guns on the street,” he said. “We saw a lot of territorial fights between, particularly in Muskegon, Detroit drug dealers coming in and trying to take over the drug trade which ended up with a lot of turf battles, a lot of shootings.”

Tague says juvenile crime became a growing problem, largely because the drug trade adopted a business model that relied on giving kids guns and using them as soldiers and couriers.

“Everyone knew that if you were a juvenile, even if you were charged with a life felony, chances are that you would do a couple years in the juvenile system and you would be released at the latest on your 21st birthday,” he said.

Public frustration grew as the murder rate spiraled, and it wasn’t just Muskegon. The same thing was occurring across the state of Michigan and across the country, says Frank Vandervort with the University of Michigan Juvenile Justice Law Clinic.

“There was this notion of ‘super-predators,’” said VanderVort, “this idea that we had this whole generation of children who lacked a conscience, who were basically anti-social, and who had access to guns and they were behaving like adults. They were committing adult level-crimes and therefore should be receiving adult-level penalties and punishments.”

Graphic showing when juveniles were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Michigan.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

Vandervort says the focus shifted from trying to rehabilitate juveniles who committed crimes to punishing them.

And this thinking was bipartisan. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, called for a federal crime bill and states like Michigan joined in. In 1996, Republican Governor John Engler asked the the Michigan Legislature to beef up the laws for punishing juvenile offenders.

“Our policy is to do everything possible to help youth succeed, but if they break the law, they need to know, with certainty, there will be consequences,” he said to the applause of lawmakers.

Listen to Gov. Engler speak to the Michigan Legislature about getting tough on juvenile crime in 1996:

“There was just this wave of lock-em-up-throw-away-the-key,” said John Truscott, Engler’s press secretary at the time.

“No sympathy at all for any of the cultural things they were going through, neighborhoods, broken homes,” he said, “and I think at the time we thought if we can’t educate them properly, and get kids on the right path, then they might be lost, so we need to protect people and that means locking them up."

Michigan adopted some of the toughest juvenile justice policies in the country, including giving prosecutors the unilateral authority to seek sentences of “adult-time-for-adult-crimes” -- especially first-degree murder.

And Frank VanderVort says that required a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

"And, so, you saw more kids going to prison for longer periods of time, and more kids sent to prison for life without parole."

“And, so, you saw more kids going to prison for longer periods of time,” he said, “and more kids sent to prison for life without parole.” 

In Michigan, first-degree murder charges can be lodged against anyone connected with a murder or the crime that led to a murder. So, accomplices, getaway drivers, gang members, people who never directly took a life were charged with first-degree murder. It’s one of the nation’s most-sweeping murder laws, and critics like attorney Debra LaBelle say using it against juveniles just went too far.

“Michigan was one of the few states who reached down and charged 14-year-olds, as young as 14, and charged a mandatory life without parole sentence,” she said.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union lobbied the Legislature to reign in some of the harsher aspects of the law. To back their position, studies were launched on teenage brain development that found teenagers are wired to make rash decisions, and didn’t always do a good job of participating in their own legal defense. 

And there was litigation originating in Michigan and other states.             

In 2005, the US Supreme Court struck down Missouri’s death sentence for people younger than 18. But Debora LaBelle says juvenile life without parole is also a death sentence.

“The jury has no choice. The judge has no choice,” she said. “If you aid and abet or you’re involved in an enterprise that’s illegal, and someone gets killed by someone else, you all got mandatory life in prison until you die.”

Six years ago, LaBelle filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of juvenile lifers in Michigan seeking to give them a chance at parole. She says she felt she couldn’t wait any longer because the state’s first juvenile lifers started dying in prison.

“Children who had been in prison since they were 14 and 15 years old got so old that they just started dying in the prison without any opportunity for release,” she said.

Her cause won a big victory in 2012. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Hill vs. Alabama case struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment, and said the punishment should only be applied in the rarest of cases.

Michigan was among the states that tried to keep that decision from applying to juvenile lifers who are already serving the sentence.

Michigan was among the states that tried to keep that decision from applying to juvenile lifers who are already serving the sentence. Attorney General Bill Schuette argued releasing them would break faith with and be needlessly cruel to the surviving family members of murder victims.

“I’m a man of faith, and I believe in forgiveness, but I also firmly understand that there are consequences to bad or evil decisions,” Schuette told a legislative committee. “We need to make sure in this discussion of teenaged murderers, we don’t ignore or dismiss in a casual fashion, the voices of victims.”

But, once again, the Supreme Court said automatic life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment, and it applies retroactively and in future cases – that means those juvenile lifers already serving time deserved new sentences or parole hearings.

Tony Tague, the former Muskegon County prosecutor, says taking another look at what Michigan did 30 years ago to deal with juvenile crime is probably worthwhile.

“As I look back, perhaps the reforms went a little too far,” he said, “but, on the other hand, at the time, as prosecutors, we needed tools to send a stronger message that juveniles involved in serious crimes would be treated seriously.”

Deborah LaBelle says many Michigan prosecutors are still not accepting the spirit or the letter of the decision that automatic life without parole violates the Constitution, and are using every means they can to keep most of Michigan’s 363 juvenile lifers from ever having a chance at freedom. And she says prosecutors still seek life without parole for juvenile defendants in too many cases. 

Her solution: She has asked a federal judge to rule that no one charged as a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole, and that no teenager is forever irredeemable in the eyes of the law.