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New Hope for Michigan Youth Sentenced to Life in Prison

About 360 people are serving life without parole sentences in Michigan for crimes committed as youths. (my_southborough/Flickr)
About 360 people are serving life without parole sentences in Michigan for crimes committed as youths. (my_southborough/Flickr)
January 26, 2016

LANSING, Mich. - There's new hope for some Michigan offenders who were sentenced as juveniles to die in prison. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama decision barring mandatory life without parole for child offenders applies retroactively.

Michigan is one of the few states that uses life without parole as a punishment for offenders younger than age 18. Kristen Staley, deputy director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, said the high court recognizes that kids lack the impulse control and judgment of adults and have greater capacity for reform.

"The court even goes to say that it's always unconstitutional for a juvenile to be serving life without a chance of parole unless he or she is found to be so irreparably corrupt or some sort of permanently incorrigible status," she said. "Frankly, it's a rare circumstance and we should not be using it."

About 360 people are serving life sentences in Michigan for crimes committed prior to age 18. Michigan also is one of a few states where 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults. Staley said she hopes the ruling helps build momentum to raise the age to 18.

Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said the promise of the juvenile-justice system to help youth cannot be realized when they are treated like adults and exposed to harsh sentencing.

"The dual commitment to public safety and rehabilitation means that young people ought to be treated as young people," he said. "They ought to be treated as youth who are changing and who are capable of changing, which means it should be about their development and not about punishment."

The court held that those affected by the decision should be released or have their sentences reduced. Staley said re-sentencing by a trial court isn't necessary.

"The court made it very clear that, frankly, a parole hearing could be an option," she said. "This won't necessarily clog all the cases with reopening and rehashing old wounds. Maybe we can just take a look at good behavior and parole options going forward. "

Monday's ruling impacts about 2,000 people incarcerated around the country.

Meanwhile on Monday, President Obama announced a series of criminal-justice reforms he plans to take through executive action, including a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities.

The high court's ruling is online at supremecourt.gov.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - MI