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, the 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.
In essence, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles who’ve been convicted of very serious crimes that nearly always involve a homicide are different than adults.
According to LaBelle, the Court’s ruling that juvenile lifers should get a chance at parole followed three other decisions concerning young offenders.
First, the Court argued that juveniles are less culpable due to the fact that their brains aren’t yet fully developed.
“Impulse control is not there, they don’t anticipate consequences in the same way, they’re subject to peer pressure,” LaBelle said.
Next, the Court said many of these children are raised in circumstances and communities in which “as a 15-, 16-year-old you can’t just get the car, drive away and get a job somewhere else. You are stuck there,” LaBelle said. “The environment … whether it’s a dysfunctional family or sometimes the poverty of your community, can impact your options and your choices.”
Finally, the Court said that juveniles just don’t know how to negotiate the criminal justice system. “They don’t have resources to hire counsel like adults, and so they get the worst kind of representation,” LaBelle said.
But that’s not all:
“The most crucial point, the Court said, is that children are uniquely capable of rehabilitation,” LaBelle told us.
Michigan has the second highest number of prisoners that were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles in the country. According to LaBelle, Michigan has been resistant to changing in this regard for a long time.
“Michigan set forth in the 1990s some of the harshest packages of laws that punish particularly youth. And at that time, they were talking about urban youth. I mean, I think the racial component, this can't be ignored,” she said.
“Our Court has said … that punishing kids does not have a deterrent effect,” LaBelle told us. “It doesn’t serve a purpose to fail our children and then punish them with vengeance.”
What does serve a purpose, she argued, is getting these children rehabilitated so they can come back as adults and contribute to society. But thanks to Michigan’s mandated punishment of life without parole for all first degree homicide cases, most of these offenders don’t get that chance.
Other states have different degrees of punishment and only hand down a sentence of life without parole for those who actually commit homicide, but Michigan is different.
“In Michigan, you can be in the car, you can be aiding and abetting, you can commit a robbery and an adult co-defendant commits a homicide, it doesn’t matter,” LaBelle said. “The punishment is exactly the same, and neither judge nor jury had a choice in that punishment. It was mandatory.”
The ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a suit in federal court in 2010, before the Supreme Court came down and said that mandatory life without parole was a cruel and unusual punishment. They are now suing Michigan over the state’s vague standards for denying parole to juvenile lifers.
“We’ve said to the court, there are now 39 states in this country that have abolished life without parole for juveniles or have not issued this sentence since the Miller Supreme Court decision. Enough. It’s cruel, it’s unusual, and the way it’s being applied in Michigan shows that it should be categorically abolished,” LaBelle said.
She believes there could be any number of reasons that prosecutors in Michigan aren’t stepping up to the challenge laid down by the Supreme Court.
“I think that there are some who just say the resources are too much … I think that there are those who resisted the issue that children are different and continue to resist it. I think that there are those who tried these cases and stuck in their mind is a crime that happened, therefore this is a just punishment” she said.
“I think there are a bunch of different reasons, none of which do I believe are lawful or serve the public well.”
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 the efforts to re-sentence many of them.