Roughly 350 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole in Michigan — among the most in a nation that stands alone in imposing such sentences on children.
Michigan’s notorious juvenile lifer law denies even the possibility of parole for certain crimes, imposing the maximum adult penalty on children as young as 14. Bordering on barbarism, this practice is almost certainly unconstitutional, given recent court decisions.
On Friday, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan cleared the way for a direct constitutional challenge to Michigan’s law.
In a lawsuit filed last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Michigan argued that denying juvenile lifers a fair hearing and chance for release violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
The defendants, including the governor and director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, moved to dismiss the suit in February, asserting that any constitutional claims by the juvenile lifers should have been raised in their state criminal cases. But U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara ruled Friday that the ALCU’s case may proceed, agreeing that the evolution of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence created a new possibility of relief.
“This is a strong decision for us,” ACLU attorney Deborah Labelle told the Free Press editorial page on Monday. “Today’s ruling allows us to prove what many already know — sentencing children to die in prison without giving them an opportunity for parole is inhumane, unfair and unconstitutional.”
Although not a class-action suit, it would, if successful, compel the state to treat all 350 juvenile lifers similarly.
In any case, the clock is ticking on Michigan’s juvenile lifer law. The Supreme Court has already clearly articulated a legal basis for treating children convicted of serious crimes differently than adults. In 2005, it declared state laws authorizing the death penality for juveniles unconstitutional. Last year, the high court ruled that states cannot sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide convictions.
The evolution of the law concerning adult sentences for juveniles is supported by emerging scientific scholarship as well as common sense. Juveniles don’t possess the same rights and responsibilities as adults because of their maturity levels. Imposing the same penalities on someone too young to buy a pack of cigarettes is therefore irrational.
Michigan’s juvenile lifer law covers homicide cases only, but nearly half of the juvenile lifers in Michigan didn’t do the killing. Instead, they were convicted of aiding and abetting the crime — which can mean little more than being at the scene. Two-thirds of Michigan’s juvenile lifers are African American.
Despite overwhelming, legal, moral and practical arguments, Michigan legislators have failed to abolish this draconian law enacted in the 1980s. Repealing it would not, in itself, release a single prisoner; it would only give juvenile lifers a chance to earn a parole after serving lengthy sentences.
For now, the federal court harbors the best hope for ending a law that has garnered Michigan international shame.