STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Michigan out of step with other states on "Juvenile lifers"

Mindsey Mohan

The Michigan Senate will vote on Senate Bill 319 any day now.

Under the bill, which is expected to pass, about 350 juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole will not have a chance at parole.

The United States Supreme Court said these sentences are unconstitutional. But that was two years ago. Attorney General Bill Schuette has been fighting since then to keep the ruling from applying to juveniles convicted before 2012, calling it a position based on victims rights. 

Applying the Supreme Court's decision to any of the people convicted before 2012 would not give anybody a "get out of jail free" card, but would grant the possibility of a parole hearing. These hearings can be traumatic experiences for victims and their families.

The people serving life sentences in Michigan were all convicted of murder or of felony murder.

The classic law school example of felony murder is somebody who participated in a robbery where somebody was murdered can be convicted of murder, even if they did not plan, participate or even know about the murder. 

There are as many sympathetic stories of juveniles convicted of life without parole as there are horrific victim stories. These emotional stories have dominated the conversation around juvenile lifers so far. 

That debate has masked the fact that Michigan out of step with other states with its stance on this issue, and perhaps on juvenile justice more generally. (figures from Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth).

  • Michigan has the second highest number of juvenile lifers in the country, second only to Pennsylvania. 
  • Five states have no prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. These states include New York and New Jersey.
  • Sixteen states have fewer than 10 people serving these sentences. Neighboring Ohio only has two. 
  • Several states resist granting parole hearings to juveniles convicted of life or near life sentences. Florida is currently being sued over its policies. In Florida, juveniles can be sentenced to 70 years without parole for a crime in which nobody was killed. 

Lots of states are trying to figure out a way around this Supreme Court ruling, but more Michigan citizens will be affected by these decisions than in almost any other state in the country. 

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