John Conyers, Jr.
By John Conyers, Jr.
The United States is the only country that still regularly sentences children to life without parole.
Children who are sentenced to life without parole grow up, grow older and then die behind bars.
We should not be treating children in the criminal justice system as if they were adults. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that irrespective of the severity of the crime, children simply do not have the same level of culpability as adults. Their physical, mental and emotional development is not the same. In addition, research shows that children possess a greater capacity for rehabilitation, change, and growth than adults.
For this reason, children require individualized treatment in the criminal justice system that is appropriate to their age and level of development. But mandatory life without parole prevents such an individualized approach — even if rehabilitation would have been feasible — and forces a child to spend his or her life and final moments behind bars.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Miller v. Alabama. It held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and is unconstitutional.” In holding this practice unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court researched the laws of other countries in addition to international norms, treaties and conventions.
Regrettably, Michigan is among the states with the largest populations of inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed as children.
A recent study from Second Chances 4 Youth and the ACLU of Michigan shows that, overall in Michigan, youth of color comprise only 29% of the youth population but represent 73% of those serving juvenile life sentences without parole. In Wayne County, according to a 2007 study, they represent 94% of the juveniles serving life without parole.
To look at these figures as only a criminal justice issue ignores the fact that this is also a civil rights crisis based on racial injustice. This, along with other criminal laws, operates as a new system of Jim Crow in this country.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the news media painted the face of the upcoming wave of violent, depraved and dangerous “super-predator children” as that of children of color. In the wake of that hysteria, Michigan passed some of the toughest juvenile justice laws in the country, which it still has — and still applies.
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the Michigan courts continue to refuse to grant retroactive relief to juvenile offenders living out mandatory life sentences without parole. This means that more than 360 juvenile offenders who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole are being denied a chance — even though that sentence would be illegal if imposed today. It also means that Michigan continues to violate the Eighth Amendment and international human rights standards.
I recognize that Michigan is not the only state facing this problem, but I believe that Michigan can lead the way to the solution.
Further, I call upon the Michigan Legislature to reexamine penalty provisions that allow for juvenile sentences of either discretionary life without parole or de-facto life without parole, that is, those numeric sentences that lock juveniles away for several decades of their life, effectively robbing them of their chance to be rehabilitated and get their young lives back on track.
Finally, I recommend that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette exercise considerable discretion with youth sentencing, to return a degree of flexibility, pragmatism and proportionality to each individual case. Specifically, I call upon Schuette to, as a policy matter, decline to seek discretionary life without parole or de facto life without parole sentences for juveniles. We can hold children accountable without warehousing them behind bars for the remainder of their lives.
For all of these proposals, I hope that other states follow Michigan’s lead in working to restore fairness to our juvenile justice system.
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