Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentencing:
Denying Children Hope for a Second Chance
Each year in Michigan teenagers as young as 14 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison with no opportunity for parole – this means they stay there until they die. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, Michigan allows teenagers to be treated and punished in the same manner as adults, without any consideration of age, maturity, culpability or ability to be rehabilitated. The treatment of children sentenced to life without parole is at odds with other areas of American law, which recognizes that children lack the capacity to handle the adult responsibilities of voting, being drafted into the military, or sitting on the very jury that has passed judgment upon them in a court of law.
· Michigan has the second highest percentage of juvenile offenders serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in the world.
· Outside of the United States, there is an international consensus that children shall not be held to the same standards as adults in the criminal justice system, and that sending children under the age of 18 to prison for the rest of their lives without possibility for review and possible release violates the basic tenets of human rights.
· The unfairness of imposing an adult system and adult punishments on children is heightened by the inequities resulting from race. The percentage of Africa-American juvenile lifers, 69%, is greatly disproportionate to the general population in Michigan, which is approximately 15% African-American. In the juvenile justice system, minority youth are more likely to be arrested, detained, committed to residential placements, and waived into the adult criminal justice system than their white peers.
· A study conducted in the summer of 2008 on the educational background of Michigan’s juvenile lifers shows that only 30% of juvenile lifers were actually attending school at the time they committed the crime that placed them behind bars for the rest of their lives. What’s more, 83% of respondents in our study were suspended at least once while they were attending school. One of the primary causes for the high rate of school absence among juvenile lifers is the prevalence of extreme disciplinary practices in many of Michigan’s public schools.
· The only chance these individuals have is to come before a commutation board in hope that the board will see they have changed and are no longer a danger to society. Unfortunately this is a near impossible feat as no deserving, rehabilitated, juvenile lifer has been granted a commutation in Michigan.
· Juvenile life without parole legislation will not release a single prisoner. The legislation will only restore judicial discretion back to an area of our criminal justice system where it is greatly needed and will grant individuals, sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison, an opportunity to come before a parole board and demonstrate their rehabilitation and remorse in order to earn a second chance at life.
Michigan’s inability to care for and uphold basic human rights for our young people is having a dire impact on the growing number of incarcerated juveniles. We fail them by sending them the clear and direct message that they are forever banished to a life behind bars, no matter how they change or mature. Children are the very definition of hope for society and deserve to be given a second chance when they, like many children do, make mistakes. The Michigan Legislature has the opportunity to finally give deserving individuals a second chance by supporting juvenile life without parole legislation.