Although the Supreme Court has now twice reiterated that life sentences are not appropriate for juvenile offenders, Michigan prosecutors apparently disagree. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court upheld its earlier ruling that sentencing a minor to a life sentence without the possibility of parole nearly always constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and should only be reserved for hose cases in which there is little to no hope of rehabilitation. Nonetheless, adult sentencing is still regularly sought in the Michigan juvenile justice system, which boasts one of the largest populations of “juvenile lifers.” While the Court’s ruling has resulted in a fresh wave of appeals, Michigan prosecutors are nonetheless taking steps to ensure that convicted juvenile offenders stay behind bars.
Nearly 360 members of Michigan’s prison population are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before reaching the age of eighteen. The majority of these inmates have already spent decades behind bars, as their sentences were mostly handed down during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. During this period, a major increase in violent crime and drug use in the State prompted Michigan prosecutors to “get tough” on juvenile offenders.
Minors at the time were often utilized by drug cartels to carry out their dirty work, as they faced less serious consequences than an adult would if apprehended. Prior to the State’s overzealous response to this trend, a juvenile offender facing murder charges could typically expect to spend at most a few years in a juvenile facility, and could count on being released by adulthood.
In an effort to stop the wave of violence accompanying the growing drug trade, Michigan prosecutors increasingly began seeking adult penalties for minors charged with adult crimes committed. For juveniles accused of first-degree murder, this translated to the prosecution seeking life sentences, without the possibility of parole, for defendants as young as 14. As a result, minor offenders charged with serious crimes during this time increasingly found themselves facing the prospect of spending their entire natural lives in prison.
Deborah LaBelle, who has been fighting for the rights of juvenile lifers for nearly six years, argues that this is the equivalent of a death sentence. She is concerned that, in spite of the Court’s most recent ruling, Michigan prosecutors are still refusing to follow the spirit of the law. The
Supreme Court has stated that life without the possibility of parole should be reserved for only the “rarest” juvenile offenses – the fact that the State has filed motions seeking to uphold nearly 60% of sentences currently being served by juvenile lifers shows that Michigan prosecutors feel otherwise.
Defense attorney Patrick Barone commented, “While it is not uncommon for juvenile courts to treat certain minor offenders as adults in cases involving especially heinous crimes, Michigan’s broad definition of first-degree murder complicates the issue.”
Pursuant to the statute, even those offenders tangentially connected to a crime, (either as a result of aiding and abetting, or by taking part in a conspiracy), can be charged with and sentenced according to the underlying offense. In a murder case, a minor who served as a lookout for a drug deal gone wrong may be sentenced as if they themselves had pulled the trigger. As prosecutors at the time seemed less concerned with whether rehabilitation was possible than with the deterrent effect these harsh sentences would have on the at-risk youth population, multiple players were often charged in murder cases.
Under the “adult-level sentences for adult-level crimes” approach, many minor offenders thus found themselves destined to spend the rest of their lives in prison. The freedom of more than 300 young people was permanently abridged in an effort to set an example. Now, as the highest court in the nation has called for an end to this practice nearly 30 years later, Michigan prosecutors continue to push back against the growing movement seeking to give these offenders a second chance. Although it promises to be a long battle, LaBelle’s hope is that eventually, no teenager will be irredeemable in the eyes of Michigan’s justice system.