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Senators introduce legislation to end juvenile life without parole

LANSING, Mich. — Sens. Jeff Irwin, Michael MacDonald, Sylvia Santana, and Curt VanderWall have introduced legislation to abolish juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in Michigan.

Their proposed bills, Senate Bills 848-851, would eliminate JLWOP, provide a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of 60 years, and allow for parole review after 10 years. In addition, the review process would require consideration of the juvenile’s age and immaturity, family home environment, and circumstances of the offense — including the role the juvenile had in the offense and any influence of peer pressure.

“The ‘Tough on Crime’ policies of the 1990s failed, leading to mass incarceration and a school-to-prison pipeline. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that our harsh laws amount to cruel and unusual punishment, Michigan law needs to recognize that juvenile offenders deserve a chance at rehabilitation,” said Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. “We shouldn’t turn our backs on juvenile offenders and throw away the key. Instead, we should ensure that Michigan’s juvenile justice system provides a chance for rehabilitation, reintegration, and redemption.”

The introduced legislation would bring Michigan into alignment with 25 other states and the District of Columbia — that have already banned JLWOP or have no one serving life without parole who was sentenced as a minor — following the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which held that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.

“This legislation gives us the opportunity to rectify this at the state level. Our understanding of effective criminal justice policies has changed over time, and so too should our laws,” said VanderWall, R-Ludington. “There are people in Michigan prisons who were sentenced as children to life without parole, and their cases need to be reviewed and given another look.”

Scientific research has shown that there are key developmental differences between youth and adults that impact a youth’s decision-making process, impulse control, and susceptibility to peer pressure. While these differences do not excuse them from accountability for their actions, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that because of this, youth are less blameworthy than adults and more capable of change and rehabilitation.

“As the Supreme Court has recognized, children are ‘constitutionally different than adults for purposes of sentencing’ because they have less culpability than adults — a conclusion that is supported by both social science and brain science documented in Supreme Court decisions,” said Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John S. Cooper. “This package of bills supported by Safe & Just Michigan positions our state to join 25 other states and D.C. in ending the cruel and unusual practice of sentencing children to die in prison.”

Ronnie Waters, a Safe & Just Michigan community engagement specialist who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile but released in 2020 after a resentencing hearing, stressed the importance of this package. “There is a misconception that Miller v. Alabama ended juvenile life without parole for good, but it did not,” he said. “States like Michigan can still sentence children to death by incarceration.”

Michigan is just one of 16 states that allow for JLWOP and has individuals serving life without parole who were sentenced as minors.

“All individuals should be held accountable for their actions,” said MacDonald, R-Macomb Township. “Yet, particularly when it comes to youth, the focus should be on rehabilitation and creating a future as a productive member of society rather than simply spending millions of dollars to punish them. These reforms would replace the juvenile life-without-parole laws which have been deemed unconstitutional with responsible outlines for how to deal with minors who have committed crimes.”

A study of the Philadelphia District Attorney Office’s resentencing of juvenile lifers found a recidivism rate of just 1.14% among 174 former juvenile lifers.

“Sentencing a child to prison for life without parole may be one of the cruelest punishments we’ve ‘accepted’ as normal,” said Santana, D-Detroit. “It offers them no hope, and no motivation to better themselves and find forgiveness. We have seen many states make this necessary reform with little recidivism. It is time that Michigan takes this step.”

Senate Bills 848-851 have the support of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, Safe & Just Michigan, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.

“The Michigan Center for Youth Justice strongly believes that youth who get in trouble are still kids — even when they commit serious offenses. Young people have the ability to be rehabilitated and deserve a second chance,” said MCYJ Policy Associate Gabrielle Dresner. “A sentence of life without the possibility of parole labels a juvenile as permanently incorrigible, grossly understating their capability to change.”

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