Growing Rate of Juvenile Life Sentences Examined in ACLU of Michigan Report

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
September 14, 2004 12:00 am

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DETROIT – In a report released today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan called attention to the growing number of juveniles serving life sentences in Michigan prisons with no hope of rehabilitation or release.

More than 300 children have been given these unforgiving sentences,”” said Deborah Labelle, the Ann Arbor attorney who directed the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU. “”Life-without-parole sentences ignore the very real differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances upon which this country was built.””

In Michigan and many other states, juveniles can be transferred to adult courts and sentenced to life sentences without any chance of parole regardless of their age or the circumstances of their offense. According to the ACLU, recent research casts doubts on the cognitive capacity of adolescents and teens and raises serious questions about juveniles’ ability to understand the criminal consequences for their actions, and their ability to understand the judicial system or cooperate in their own defense.

The ACLU’s report also includes recommendations for a response to juvenile crime.

“”This report illustrates the need to re-examine the laws that allow children to be sentenced to life in adult prisons when they can’t even legally use alcohol, serve on juries or be drafted for military service because they are presumed to lack the capacity to be able to handle adult responsibilities,”” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

Moss said that automatic, mandatory and permanent sentencing laws in Michigan leave no room to reasonably assess a juvenile’s growth or maturity. In too many cases, the financial and societal cost of keeping children in prison cannot be justified by the benefit in terms of public safety.

The report recommends that individual assessments of the need for continued incarceration and proportional punishment be considered to allow these individuals the opportunity to rejoin and contribute to society, using the resources for efforts that are proven to reduce youth crime.

Recommendations in the report include:

  • Amending the law to provide that juveniles convicted of homicide offenses may receive a sentence not exceeding 25 years;
  • Amending the law to eliminate automatic and judicial waivers to circuit court;
  • Amending the law to limit disposition options to juvenile or “”blended”” sentences, such that no juvenile may be sent to prison before his or her 18th birthday;
  • Transferring all juveniles currently under the age of 18 to juvenile facilities and commute to “”blended”” sentences;
  • Reducing existing life without parole sentences to a maximum of 25 years; and
  • Restoring parole eligibility for all who served at least 15 years.

The imposition of life without parole on minor children is explicitly prohibited by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by President Clinton in 2000, and is widely considered a violation of international law and fundamental human rights, the ACLU noted. Despite this, Michigan and 40 other states permit these sentences to be imposed on juveniles. Michigan is one of 13 states that have no age limit for life sentences without possibility of parole.

The Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative was made possible by a generous grant from the JEHT Foundation to investigate issues surrounding the growing number of children sentenced to life sentences without the possibility of parole. The JEHT Foundation was established in April 2000 to support its donors’ interests in human rights, social justice and community building. The name JEHT stands for the core values that underlie the Foundation’s mission: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance.

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