How much time is enough for juveniles serving life in Michigan?

Jan 21, 2014

Credit mattaz / flickr

In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.  That doesn't mean it's impossible for a young offender to get a life sentence, it's just not automatic.

Yesterday the New York Times shined a light on what has been happening in Florida since that Supreme Court decision. In that state judges might be paying attention to the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Young offenders are still ending up in prison for life, sometimes for violent but not lethal crimes. 

In Michigan, Attorney General Bill Schuette does not want to reverse life sentences for prisoners convicted as juveniles and already serving their sentence. He is still trying to find a legal way around fully enforcing the original Supreme Court decision.

Schuette is fighting in the courts over whether or not the 350 or so juveniles serving life sentences right now are eligible for parole. He believes the Supreme Court decision should only apply to those juveniles sentenced since the 2012 ruling. There's been plenty of criticism for his position, and just this week he defended himself against those critics in the Detroit Free Press.

It's not an easy issue, but Schuette's actions appear so overtly political that it's unlikely they will help get Michigan any closer to figuring out how to best discourage these violent crimes. Shuette avoided the words "juvenile offender" in his writing and instead refers to offenders as "teenage murderers." 

There are a small number of judges and nonprofits experimenting with ideas like restorative justice to deal with violent juvenile offenders, but they are few and far between. 

This week we've taken a look at how much more attention is focused on the school to prison pipeline lately than even a few months ago. It's possible that these cases will focus some more attention on the end of that pipeline for the offenders who enter as kids, and who can't get out of it.