A federal judge in Detroit says the state must give more than 350 inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole a chance at freedom. US District Court Judge John O’Meara says a US Supreme Court ruling that struck down Michigan’s juvenile lifer law and others like it applies retroactively, as well as in the future.
The order also says the state has to offer a “real and meaningful” chance at parole.
Deborah LaBelle is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the juvenile lifer law. She says the state has been too slow to comply with the ruling.
“We can all read what the US Supreme Court said: To put youth in prison for life without looking at them again is cruel and unusual punishment,” she says. “Michigan has to stop imposing that punishment.”
LaBelle says the state’s foot-dragging includes denying juvenile lifers entry into programs that prepare inmates for life outside prison. She says those programs are part of what a parole board considers, so denying an inmate a spot in a re-entry initiative is practically the same as denying parole.
“They can’t even get into rehabilitative programming because the state keeps telling them: ‘You’re going to die in prison,’” said LaBelle.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette has argued in court and the Legislature that the Supreme Court ruling should be narrowly applied to future cases and just a handful of inmates currently serving.
“In every case where a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison, a victim was already sentenced to death – forever. The victim’s family then grapples with the aftermath of post-traumatic stress, depression, unyielding grief, and visits to a grave,” says Schuette’s spokeswoman, Joy Yearout. “Attorney General Schuette opposes re-victimizing these families through unnecessary hearings not required by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Schuette could try to appeal the order.
There is also an effort underway in the Legislature to re-draft the juvenile lifer law to comply with the US Supreme Court decision.
The court did not rule out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The opinion says the sentence cannot be mandatory, and a judge must hold a hearing to decide whether a life-without-parole sentence is appropriate. O’Meara’s order also says the state’s process cannot allow a trial judge or anyone else to veto a parole board’s decision to grant a release.
O’Meara’s order says he could name a special magistrate to supervise the state’s compliance with his order. He set a deadline of January 31 for the state to submit a plan to the court.