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ACLU Suing Michigan Over Juvenile Life Sentences

Dec 09, 2016, by Maurice Davis in Criminal Defense, Legal Blog

Michigan has more people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed in childhood than any other state in the nation except Pennsylvania. In all, 39 states have abolished life sentences without parole for minors. However, in Michigan, the law still requires mandatory life sentences without parole for any man, woman, or child convicted of first-degree murder.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court entered a directive stating that all convicts serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors should have the opportunity to have their sentences reduced. However, the Michigan criminal justice system is not making it easy for its 360 juvenile lifers to benefit from the new ruling. Now, the ACLU is filing suit against the State of Michigan in an effort to expedite the review of these sentences.

Sentencing Juveniles to Life Without Parole is Unconstitutional in Most Cases

In the case of Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Supreme Court ruled that a life without parole sentence should only be given in the rarest of cases, where the youth is clearly “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.” In 2016, the Court reiterated that life sentences without parole were presumptively unconstitutional when it came to minors, and that all minors who had previously been convicted should have their sentences reviewed.

In ruling that children who commit very serious crimes should be treated differently than adults, the Supreme Court cited the following principles:

  • Children’s brains aren’t fully developed. – Scientific studies have shown that children have less impulse control than adults, so they are less culpable than adults from a legal standpoint.
  • Children cannot easily choose alternatives to crime. – An adult has the resources to get an education and a job. A child living in an unhealthy environment has basically no ability to better their circumstances.
  • Children can’t negotiate the criminal justice system effectively. – Children often get the worst legal representation in their cases because unlike adults they often don’t have the financial ability to choose a good lawyer to defend them.
  • Children have an exceptional capacity for rehabilitation. – The fact that children are impressionable often leads them to crime, but it can also make them particularly receptive to counseling and rehabilitation.

For these reasons, sentencing children in the same way as adults consist of cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Michigan Prosecutors Are Fighting to Keep Juvenile Life Sentences

There are more than 360 inmates in Michigan who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as children. Michigan prosecutors are fighting to keep around 250 of them behind bars indefinitely. That amounts to around 60 percent of the concerned inmates, when the Supreme Court ruled that life without parole should be reserved for the rarest cases. As of yet, only one juvenile lifer has been released.

Prosecutors and some judges may be resisting the release of these juvenile offenders because of the strain it puts on the criminal justice system. The resentencing process involves more than just a review of the inmate’s file and a hearing. Instead, attorneys and judges have to pour through mountains of documents to properly evaluate these cases and determine which ones are eligible for release.

The ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole initiative is fighting back. Their lawsuit aims to force Michigan prosecutors to follow the letter of the law. Until then, Michigan will remain an unfortunate outlier in the country when it comes to the treatment of child offenders.

Davis Law group Is Here to Help

At Davis Law Group, we are passionate about social justice and providing our clients with the best defense possible when they face the criminal justice system. If you’ve been charged with a crime, call us today at (313) 818-3238 for a free and confidential case consultation.