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All Kids Sentenced to Die in Michigan Prisons Get Second Chance

Steven M. Watt,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
Brandon Buskey,
Criminal Law Reform Project
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August 14, 2013

363 men and women in Michigan are currently slated to die in prison because of tragic mistakes they made as kids. In each of these cases, Michigan law gave the judge no choice but to automatically sentence them to life without even the possibility of parole.

Sound cruel and unusual? It is.

On Monday, a federal judge in Michigan issued the latest of two powerful takedowns of a Michigan law that ignores the fact that kids are still maturing and have a unique capacity for rehabilitation, and instead subjects children as young as 14 to mandatory life without the chance of parole for certain crimes. Michigan must now provide parole hearings and a realistic opportunity for release to each of these 363 men and women.

Viewed through any lens – our country’s enforcement of basic human rights, our treatment of children in the criminal justice system, our relationship to extreme punishment, etc. – this is a major win. But the sad truth is that this ruling rolls back a terrifying law that never should have been on the books in the first place.

This law has resulted in hundreds of children receiving sentences of mandatory life without the possibility of parole despite the global consensus that kids cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults. And its existence is a revealing example of our troubling hypocrisy about the proper role of youth in the eyes of the law. In the U.S., we prohibit children from voting, we shield kids from being drafted into the military, and we do not allow them to sit on juries, all because of their inherent immaturity. Yet, in Michigan and across the nation, we allow courts to judge children as adults for their most misguided acts.

In February 2012, nine Michigan prisoners who were sentenced as children to die in prison challenged that law. In a major win, a federal judge correctly held in January of this year that Michigan’s law violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment by denying these individuals any meaningful opportunity at parole.

Following this decision, the Michigan attorney general took a rather curious position; namely, that, while the Court could grant relief to the handful of individuals in the lawsuit, its order did not apply any of the others who are serving the exact same sentence.

And that’s how we got here. In an order issued Monday, Judge John Corbett O’Meara made it crystal clear that this ruling applies to all prisoners in Michigan serving this unconstitutional sentence, regardless of whether they are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. As the judge forcefully stated in January, “to hold otherwise would be to allow the state to impose unconstitutional punishment on some persons, but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice.”

It’s about time for Michigan to abandon this shameful law, and give these hundreds of wrongfully sentenced prisoners a second chance.

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