By Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
Nearly 300 incarcerated Michiganders, currently serving out life sentences for crimes they committed while juveniles without the possibility of parole, may finally be closer to having their sentences reconsidered — more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled those sentences unconstitutional.
Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature have previously been unable to advance legislation abolishing juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). With Democrats now controlling the chambers, legislators are hopeful that the newest iterations of the bipartisan bills will receive hearings and a vote.
Five Senate bills and five House bills — introduced last week with both Democratic and Republican co-sponsors — would align Michigan with 26 other states that have taken steps to comply with Miller v. Alabama.
“The United States Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court have ruled that automatically sentencing youth to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. Michigan law needs to recognize that juvenile offenders deserve a chance at rehabilitation,” said state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) on Friday. Irwin sponsors one of the Senate bills and has been vocal on the issue.
“We shouldn’t turn our backs on juvenile offenders and throw away the key. Instead, we should ensure that Michigan’s juvenile justice system provides a chance for rehabilitation, reintegration, and redemption.”
In addition to declaring that sentencing a child to life without parole is unconstitutional, the new bills comply with recent Michigan Supreme Court decisions that limit other excessive punishments for children.
The bills include:
- Senate Bill 119, sponsored by Irwin, would eliminate life without the possibility of parole for youth under 19 years of age.
- Senate Bill 120, sponsored by state Sen. Sue Shink (D-Ann Arbor), would allow parole for certain offenders younger than 19 at the time of their conviction.
- Senate Bill 121, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Twp.), would amend Michigan’s probate code to prohibit sentencing individuals younger than 19 to JLWOP.
- Senate Bill 122, sponsored by state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), would amend the public health code to exclude individuals younger than 19 from penalties for certain crimes of imprisonment for life without parole eligibility.
- Senate Bill 123, sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), would amend Michigan penal code to exclude individuals younger than 19 from penalties for certain crimes of imprisonment for life without parole eligibility.
- House Bill 4160, sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit), would allow parole for certain offenders younger than 19 at the time of their conviction.
- House Bill 4161, sponsored by state Rep. Jimmie Wilson Jr. (D-Ypsilanti), would amend the public health code to exclude individuals younger than 19 from penalties for certain crimes of imprisonment for life without parole eligibility.
- House Bill 4162, sponsored by state Rep. Amos O’Neal (D-Saginaw), would amend Michigan penal code to exclude individuals younger than 19 from penalties for certain crimes of imprisonment for life without parole eligibility.
- House Bill 4163, sponsored by state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt), would prohibit a JLWOP sentence for individuals less than 19 years of age.
- House Bill 4164, sponsored by state Rep. Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington), would amend Michigan’s probate code to prohibit sentencing individuals younger than 19 to JLWOP.
Besides VanderWall, the only other Republican to sign onto the bills so far is state Sen. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe).
The bills would provide a minimum sentence of no less than 10 years and a maximum sentence of no more than 60 years, and allow for parole review after 10 years where “incapacities of youth” must be considered.
“Incapacities of youth” factors include the juvenile’s age and immaturity, family home environment, circumstances of the offense and any influence of peer pressure.
Both chambers meet next on Tuesday. The bills will need to advance through their respective committees before coming to full floor votes in the House and Senate.
“This legislation gives us the opportunity to rectify this at the state level. Our understanding of effective criminal justice policies has changed over time, and so too should our laws,” VanderWall said. “There are people in Michigan prisons who were sentenced as children to life without parole, and their cases need to be reviewed and given another look.”
By eliminating JLWOP, the Parole Board would have the opportunity to review cases in a way that takes into consideration the unique circumstances of each defendant.
The legislative packages have the support of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, Safe & Just Michigan, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.
“There is a misconception that Miller v. Alabama ended juvenile life without parole for good, but it did not,” said Ronnie Waters, community engagement specialist with Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based criminal justice reform organization.
“States like Michigan can still sentence children to death by incarceration.”
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