ACLU of Michigan Applauds Introduction of Legislation to Reform "Juvenile Life Without Parole" Sentences
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DETROIT – One year after the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan released a report calling attention to the more than 300 juveniles living out life sentences in Michigan prisons with no hope of rehabilitation or release, legislation was introduced in Lansing today to correct the laws that punish children as adults.
“”Children are not disposable,”” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss. “”We need to re-examine the laws that take away the ability of judges to examine each case and determine the most appropriate punishment for those involved in crimes. More than 300 people, sentenced when they were children, are sitting in adult prisons today.””
State Senator Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) announced the introduction of a legislation package designed to guarantee appropriate sentencing of minors convicted of severe crimes. The four-bill package would prohibit the sentencing of an individual convicted of a crime before the age of 18 to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole.
“”This is not to say that anyone who is involved in a horrible crime should not be punished, but we must provide a mechanism to determine if there is a chance they could eventually become productive members of society,”” said Sen. Brater. “”We cannot just toss them away.””
Michigan appears ready for changes in the sentencing laws, said the ACLU. According to a poll conducted by the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, there is strong public support for reforming laws that allow minors to be sentenced to life without parole. In the statewide poll, 72 percent of respondents said they believed adolescents under the age of 18 who commit violent offenses are strong candidates for rehabilitation.
“”The preliminary results of this study suggest that the people in the state of Michigan are unequivocally against locking up children for life,”” said Terrence Allen, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and co-author of the study. The full report on the poll is expected to be released in mid-November.
Judges in several districts have also expressed deep displeasure with limited sentencing options. The Honorable Leopold Borello from Saginaw has specifically criticized the mandatory provision of the current legislation, which allows the court no discretion whatsoever.
In Michigan and many other states, juveniles can be transferred to adult courts and sentenced to life without any chance of parole regardless of his or her age and without consideration of the circumstances of the offense. Recent research, recognized by the Supreme Court in its opinion prohibiting the death penalty for juveniles, casts doubts on the cognitive capacity of teens to understand the criminal consequences for their actions and their ability to understand the judicial system or cooperate in their own defense.
A report issued jointly by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch earlier this month drew national attention to this issue and pointed out that Michigan has the third-highest rate in the nation of sentencing child offenders to life without parole. In fact, the United States is one of very few countries in the world that even permits children to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
“”It’s important to recognize that some of the people sitting in prison right now have been there for many years and are not the same people who were sentenced 20 or 30 years ago,”” said Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Labelle, who directed the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU. “”Many of them were also not the ones who pulled the trigger – they deserve a second chance, and at the very least, a second look.””
The ACLU said the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative was made possible as a result of the generous grant given by the JEHT Foundation to investigate the issues surrounding the growing number of children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
To read about a few of the young men and women who are currently serving life without parole sentences in Michigan prisons, go to: www.aclumich.org/modules.php?name=ExtraNews&file=article&sid=37
To read Second Chances, the ACLU’s report on Michigan juveniles serving life without parole sentences, go to: www.aclumich.org/pubs/juvenilelifers.pdf
To read the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report, go to: www.amnestyusa.org/countries/usa/clwop/report.pdf
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