Michigan Supreme Court got it wrong on juvenile lifers

The Michigan Supreme Court’s recent decision denying legal relief to hundreds of inmates sentenced as juveniles to life in prison is a miscarriage of justice that should outrage every citizen.

The court’s 4-3 ruling issued on Tuesday abandons fairness in deference to a contrived administrative expedience while it ignores the preponderance of scientific evidence that illustrate the insensibility of treating child offenders as adults.

It allows to stand the life sentences of 334 inmates, many of whom were marginally involved with the homicide for which they were convicted, in spite of a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring “cruel and unusual” the mandatory life sentences for offenders younger than 18.

And it defies reason. How is it that a law would be unconstitutional if the offense occurred after a certain date, but just fine before that date?

The decision, which broke along party lines, comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that life sentences without the possibility for parole for juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

That ruling, in the case Miller vs. Alabama, was grounded in the medical community’s consensus of how brains develop and the susceptibility of adolescents to impulsive behavior.

At issue before the Michigan court was whether Miller vs. Alabama applied retroactively in Michigan, or if it only applies to future cases. The justices sided with Attorney General Bill Schuette, who argued that new sentencing hearings for those inmates would force murder victims’ families to relive the trauma of their loved ones’ deaths.

In the majority opinion, the four Republican justices decided it would be prohibitively “burdensome and complicated” for prosecutors and judges to consider the sentencing factors deemed relevant by the Miller vs. Alabama court.

Without a doubt, it would present a challenge. Among all states, Michigan has the second-highest number of people serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were younger than age 18. Yet it’s not insurmountable. As Justice Mary Beth Kelly pointed out in her dissent, dividing the juvenile lifer cases at issue among the state’s circuit court bench would give each circuit court judge just two additional cases.

Particularly offensive in the majority’s decision was its feigned concern for prematurely releasing inmates who might pose a threat “in our most vulnerable neighborhoods.”

This ruling isn’t about public safety, but politics. There is absolutely no public safety threat in applying the Supreme Court’s ruling retroactively.

For starters, a new hearing is no guarantee of release, as judges would have ample discretion to review evidence as well as the inmates’ records of conduct while in prison. Further, about half of these inmates were not the actual killers, raising legitimate questions about the harshness of their sentences.

We understand the desire to be sensitive to the families of the victims of these crimes, but compassion works both ways.

Although it does not excuse their crimes, most people sent to prison for life as youth were themselves victims, failed by systems that are intended to protect children.

Our justice system should not abandon hope for offenders younger than the age of 18 and should instead offer some chance for redemption despite having committed a terrible crime as a juvenile.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision thankfully guarantees that going forward, our judiciary will do just that. Unfortunately, it will likely require another high court ruling to deliver justice to the hundreds still serving life sentences imposed when they themselves were but children.

– Battle Creek Enquirer