Despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in May that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide to life in prison without parole, the state of Michigan continues to sentence citizens to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were minors. The practice is the subject of a lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan and was filed on behalf of nine Michigan citizens.
Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain specific felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion t life without parole. That means that judges and juries have no ability to take into account the universally-acknowledged reality that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.
According to the suit, the Michigan sentencing practice denied the now-adult plaintiffs an opportunity for parole and a fair hearing to demonstrate their growth, maturity and rehabilitation. As a result the Michigan sentencing practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is unconstitutional. This was the basis of the Supreme Court’s May ruling holding such sentences as unconstitutional, and should be the basis for changing the practice in Michigan.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole. Michigan incarcerates the highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger. According to the ACLU, there are currently 350 individuals serving such mandatory life sentences in Michigan, including more than 100 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole who were present or committed a felony when a homicide was committed by someone else.
The ACLU is asking the court to declare that denying children a meaningful opportunity for parole is not only a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, but international human rights law as well.
The simple fact is this is a practice the Supreme Court rightly outlawed in Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons. The idea that this country simply throws away children is not only appalling, it is for all intents and purposes un-American. It’s a practice that must be completely eliminated from our criminal justice system as we rightly turn toward rehabilitation of our children and away from indefinite incarceration.
photo courtesy of kangotraveler via Flickr