State laws allowing life sentences without parole for juveniles unconstitutional

Jun 25, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down state laws that allow juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. The ruling says life without parole for crimes that occurred when a felon was younger than 18 is excessive and violates the Eighth Amendment.

Michigan is one of several states that allowed juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. The state has more than 350 people in state prisons serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

All of Michigan’s juvenile lifers were sentenced to prison for murder, although in about half the cases, the convicted were not the people who actually took a life. In some cases, the actual murderer was an adult who received a less-harsh sentence after a plea deal.

The American Civil Liberties Union says those serving life sentences who were tried when minors can either ask to be re-sentenced or granted a parole hearing. The decision will also likely require the Legislature to re-write Michigan’s juvenile sentencing standards.

Deborah LaBelle is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. She says the court found sentencing laws like Michigan’s are too sweeping.

 “You must take into consideration not just your youthful status, your individual characteristics, your life circumstances, the age their involvement in the crime – all of these must be taken into consideration for children under the age of 18 before you determine what’s an appropriate sentence,” she said.

"The court did not categorically say that a judge could never issue a life-without-parole sentence for juveniles,” said LaBelle. “They said they couldn’t do it without considering all of these factors and then, what the court said, is given that, any life-without-parole sentence should be exceedingly rare.”   

The ACLU also filed a separate challenge – on largely the same grounds -- to Michigan’s juvenile lifer law two years ago in federal court. It’s not clear how the Supreme Court decision will affect the future of that case.