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Sentencing Children to Die in Prison

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May 18, 2011

One year ago this week, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing youth who have committed non-homicide offenses to life in prison without some meaningful opportunity for review of that sentence is unconstitutional. Although the ruling does not guarantee that juvenile offenders will eventually be released, it requires that they be provided with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before during their lifetime. The ruling in the case, Graham v. Florida, was an important step in the right direction. It recognized that juvenile offenders are fundamentally different from their adult counterparts, that they have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation, and that they should not, therefore, be punished with the harshest sentence that can be imposed on adults.

Nonetheless, Michigan law still requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain crimes involving homicide be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced to life without any meaningful opportunity for parole or release. In other words, Michigan is sentencing children to die in prison. In stark contrast, no other country in the world subjects children to such a sentence, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty ratified by every country in the world save Somalia and the United States, prohibits it.

There are currently 350 individuals in Michigan serving mandatory life sentences they received when they were under 18 years old. Over 100 of them didn’t commit a homicide — people like Henry Hill, who is serving a life without parole sentence in connection with a murder committed by another person when Henry was only 16 years old.

We believe that sentencing children to spend the rest of their lives in prison without giving them some meaningful opportunity to obtain release upon demonstrating their growth and rehabilitation is unfair, unconstitutional and un-American, and that it completely ignores the human potential — especially in children — for rehabilitation. To that end, in November 2010 the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit challenging Michigan’s unfair sentencing scheme on behalf of Henry and eight others.

As former assistant U.S. attorney Mark Osler wrote in the Detroit News yesterday:

A process that promotes brutal efficiency and harshness over the careful considerations of prosecutors, the wisdom of judges, and the voices of victims has no place in our judicial system, particularly when the object of that brutal efficiency and harshness is a child.

We expect a ruling in the Michigan case soon. Stay tuned for further updates.

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