Mandatory Life Sentences for Minors Still a Debate in Michigan

Mandatory Life Sentences for Minors Still a Debate in MichiganJim Shaffer ad EDITED

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 6, 2014)

Attorney General Bill Schuette announced his office will present oral arguments before the Michigan Supreme Court arguing that a recent U.S. Supreme Court addressing the sentences of convicted teenage murderers does not apply retroactively.

“First degree murder is a serious crime, and it carries with it serious consequences,” said Schuette. “Considering even the possibility of new parole hearings for these convicted teen murderers will force victims’ families to relive the deaths of their loved ones. The integrity of our justice system demands crime victims and their families come first.”

The Michigan Supreme Court today is set to hear three cases regarding juveniles convicted of first-degree murder sentenced to life in prison without parole in three cases including, People v. Carp, People v. Davis, and People v. Eliason. Schuette’s office is presenting arguments in People v. Carp. According to MLive, “Davis was 16 when he participated in an armed robbery where a person was killed, but he was not the BTLWeddingExpo_144x360shooter. Carp was 16 when he assisted his half-brother in a stabbing death. Eliason was 14 when he inexplicably shot his grandfather.”

Schuette’s People v. Carp brief includes the following excerpts:

“…[T]he more than 300 offenders serving a mandatory life sentence for committing first-degree murder while teenagers are some of the most dangerous in Michigan. More than 80 of these offenders were sentenced to life without parole more than 25 years ago, with the oldest reaching back 50 years to 1962. The community’s interest in finality weighs heavily here. The ability of a trial court to consider the factors listed in Miller for these cases is seriously limited.” (p.1)

“James Porter brutally murdered a mother and her four children, including a ten-year boy in 1982 when Porter was 16 years old; he was sentenced to life without parole in 1983. Now that Porter is almost 50 years old, the individual considerations for Miller for the crime committed 30 years ago—whether Porter’s “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks” along with his “family and home environment that surrounds him” might support a lesser sentence than non-parolable life—may be impossible to determine… [These considerations] support the conclusion that Miller does not apply retroactively under ctechadfederal law or state law.” (p.1)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision deemed mandatory sentences of life without parole to be unconstitutional for juvenile murders.  The ruling permitted life without parole sentences to be given, as long as judges consider whether they are appropriate sentences for the crime committed by a teenager.  The court did not address the issue of retroactivity.

Four other states – Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Florida – as well as two federal appellate courts have also found that the U.S. Supreme Court decision is not retroactive.  Twenty-nine states ban life without parole when a minor is being charged.

Changes to Michigan Sentencing Guidelines After Miller v. Alabama

On March 4, 2014, Governor Snyder signed Senate Bill 319 (S.B. 319) into law bringing Michigan law and sentencing guidelines into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama. S.B. 319 Street-Eatzz-Adwas sponsored by Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) in the House.

On December 23, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit granted Schuette’s request to stay a ruling by a federal court opening the door for parole for approximately 360 teenage murderers currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.  The order issued in Hill v. Snyder stays the District Court ruling, pending the outcome of an appeal before the 6th Circuit.

Schuette’s appeal will challenge the District Court’s requirement that the Michigan Department of Corrections hold parole hearings for nearly 360 teenage murders currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

“Such parole hearings are not warranted under existing Supreme Court precedent,” Schuette states in a press release.  “The federal retroactivity standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane in 1989, commonly known as ‘the Teague Rule,’ states that U.S. Supreme Court rulings are not generally retroactive for matters of judicial process.”  Schuette will also defend the statutory authority of state sentencing judges to block parole for violent criminals.HowesLocation

The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting for those who were incarcerated as minors.  According to the ACLU, “The Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that juveniles convicted of murder cannot be subject to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Twenty nine states currently have such laws.

“The Court’s rulings in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs build on a decision two years prior that juveniles could not be sentenced under any circumstances to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses. Even when convicted of murder, the Court said, judges must be allowed to take a juvenile’s age into account (along with other relevant circumstances) in deciding the appropriate punishment. The Court specifically noted, moreover, that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest penalty will be uncommon.

“In the United States each year, children as young as 13 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any opportunity for release. Approximately 2,570 children are sentenced to juvenile life without parole or JLWOP in the United States. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to thank you Todd Blankenshipthe same standards of responsibility as adults and recognition that children are entitled to special protection and treatment, the United States allows children to be treated and punished as adults.”

In 2010, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine Michigan inmates who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were minors and who are being denied the possibility of parole. The lawsuit charges that denying the plaintiffs an opportunity for release constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates their constitutional right to a fair hearing to demonstrate their maturity and rehabilitation as well as customary international human rights law that prohibits the imposition of life without parole or release sentences on anyone who commits an offense under the age of 18.

A brief filed in the case of Hill v. Snyder attempts to overcome the impression that a parole hearing for prisoners would undermine the convictions of those serving life sentences.  “Defendants wrongfully contend that Plaintiffs challenge the validity of their convictions or their sentences. This lawsuit does neither. Plaintiffs do not ask that their convictions be vacated or overturned. They do not seek a reduction in their sentences. Instead, Plaintiffs ask that M.C.L. § 791.234(6)(a) be declared unconstitutional and essentialenjoined such that the Michigan Parole Board may consider them for release after a meaningful hearing on whether they meet the relevant criteria.

“Michigan law considers youth between the ages of 14 and 16 too young and immature to vote, to enter into valid contracts, to serve on juries, to join the armed forces, to smoke tobacco, to marry without parental consent, to leave school or to work full-time. It does not, however, consider them too young or immature to receive the most onerous criminal punishment permitted by law: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

“Michigan law permits children who are between the ages of 14 and 16 and who have been charged with first degree murder to be tried as adults at the sole discretion of the prosecutor. If convicted as charged, Michigan law mandates that they receive a sentence of life imprisonment. It forbids a court from considering the child’s age, cognitive capabilities or competency at sentencing. Although these youth may develop and mature into model citizens while incarcerated, Michigan law prohibits the State’s Parole Board nicholas-schrock-allstatefrom ever considering them for parole. They must remain in prison until they die.

While Schuette’s press release describes a particularly heinous situation, other situations where minors have been sentenced for life without parole are not as clear, the ACLU says.  Examples include:

~ “Plaintiff Henry Hill, for example, has been imprisoned for nearly 30 years. When he was just 16, he was charged, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for aiding and abetting a first degree murder. He had been with his cousin in a park shortly before the cousin shot and killed another young man. After his arrest, Henry, a high school student, was evaluated and found to have the academic ability of a third grader, and the mental maturity of a nine-year- old. Today, he works and participates in his bible study group for which he consistently receives excellent reports. He has not had a misconduct citation for over a decade and has a custody level II, the lowest possible for his sentence. He is regarded as a model prisoner.”

~ “Plaintiff Jennifer Pruitt was 16 when she participated in a plan to rob one of her neighbors. Jennifer was a runaway from sexually and physically abusive parents with no prior record. Jennifer’s co-defendant stabbed and killed the neighbor. Jennifer reported the incident and her involvement to police the same day, leading to the arrest of her co-defendant. Jennifer was charged, convicted and sentenced as an adult to a life sentence for felony first degree murder. While in adult prison Jennifer was raped by two male corrections officers. Jennifer has served 18 years in adult prison, more than half of her natural life. Jennifer has completed her GED and all recommended DDAsample01rehabilitation programs offered her. Jennifer is assigned to the lowest custody level possible for her offense, and she has been described by prison officials as an “inmate role model and excel lent worker, dependable, honest, sincere and reliable.”

~ “Plaintiff Matthew Bentley was 14 years old when he broke into a house, stole a gun, and shot the homeowner when unexpectedly confronted. Mathew came from an abusive home, had been prescribed anti-depressants and shortly before his crime had been placed in a foster home. Matthew was charged, convicted and sentenced as an adult to a life sentence for felony murder. Matthew has served twelve years in adult prison. He earned his GED and a trade certificate in custodial maintenance. He acts as a mentor and a guardian to incoming young prisoners who are targeted by older sexually predatory inmates. He is assigned to the lowest custody level possible for an individual serving this sentence.”

~ “Plaintiff Kevin Boyd was 16 when his mother asked him for keys to his father’s home so that she could kill him. Kevin gave her the keys without reporting the threat to the police. The next morning he found his father murdered and called the police. His mother confessed. Kevin was charged, convicted and sentenced as an adult to a life sentence for first degree premeditated murder. Kevin has served 14 years in adult sidebar01reader_supportprison. He is assigned to the lowest custody level possible for an individual serving this sentence. Kevin has received his GED, several trade certificates and is considered a model prisoner.”

More information on a group advocating for life sentences regardless of age, National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, can be found at http://www.teenkillers.org/index.php/legislation/michigan-2/.

The ACLU information on juvenile life sentences can be found at https://www.aclu.org/human-rights_racial-justice/end-juvenile-life-without-parole.

A previous story about the shooting of a police officer by a teen in Oak Park can be found at http://oaklandcounty115.com/2013/12/28/fallen-oak-park-officers-memory-lives-on-family-fights-early-release-law/.

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