Between the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court, mandatory life sentences for juveniles for certain crimes have become a hot topic of controversy in Michigan in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing offenders under age 18 to mandatory life in prison without parole violates the Eighth Amendment and is considered cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Court did not decide whether the ruling applies retroactively, which would give prisoners already serving life sentences for crimes committed as a minor a chance at freedom. In most cases, mandatory life without parole is sentenced in cases of first-degree murder, which includes intentional or unintentional death during a felony crime, premeditated murder, and aiding either of the aforementioned crimes. Michigan is home to the second-largest number of juveniles serving life in prison - 358 cases of about 2,500 nationwide.
Both the Michigan Legislature and state Supreme Court have been discussing mandatory life sentences within the past few weeks. On March 4, 2014, Governor Snyder signed Senate Bill 319, which modified current juvenile sentencing law. It requires judges to hold a hearing before issuing juveniles a life sentence and gives judges the option to sentence between 25 and 60 years if they do not feel the minor deserves a life sentence. If the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision is applied retroactively, Senate Bill 319 allows inmates sentenced to life in prison without parole to be resentenced.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not released when it will decide if Miller vs. Alabama’s ruling should be applied retroactivity, but the Michigan Supreme Court heard three hours of testimony on Thursday, March 6, 2014 from advocates and opponents to applying it retroactively. The arguments revolve around three Michigan cases: 23-year-old Raymond Carp, who helped his older brother fatally stab a Clair County woman when he was 15, 36-year-old Cortez Davis, who aided in an armed robbery that resulted in the death of a Detroit man when he was 16, and 18-year-old Dakohta Eliason, who fatally shot his grandfather when he was 14. It is currently unknown when the Michigan Supreme Court will issue a decision.
The original U.S. Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, involves two 14-year-olds convicted of murder. Kuntrell Jackson and two other teenagers planned to rob an Arkansas video store. While waiting outside, another teenager shot and killed the store clerk. Jackson was given a life sentence with no possibility of parole. The other case involved Alabama resident Evan Miller, who set fire to a trailer after an altercation with the owner that lead to the owner’s death and was sentenced to life in prison. Judges ruled each sentence “mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty,” according to the opinion of the court. The opinion states children and adults constitutionally differ in terms of how they are to be sentenced. Judges view children as having lesser culpability and greater chances of behavioral reform, therefore are less deserving of severe punishments. The Court details the idea that children have not developed maturity or a sense of responsibility, which leads to risk-taking, recklessness, and impulsivity. They are more susceptible to negative influences and are less likely to retain poor behavior through adulthood, the opinion states.
A strong advocate against resentencing juvenile lifers includes Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. He argues families of murder victims were promised the killers would be locked up for life and that resentencing would not only break that rule, but reopen old wounds from their loved one’s death. Some interest groups, such as the Juvenile Law Center, an organization that aims to advance “the rights and well-being of children in jeopardy,” argues prisoners should not be held fully responsible for their decisions as minors, before they are fully developed and fight to convince courts to apply the law retroactively. The JLC’s Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Marsha Levick, stated, “Once the United States Supreme Court sets down a marker, it is morally unconscionable to leave any juvenile on the other side of that marker ... The Eighth Amendment decisions require retroactive application if we are to maintain moral consistency in our justice system."
While it is still unknown if the Miller v. Alabama ruling will apply retroactively nationwide, Michigan residents will soon learn whether inmates already serving life sentences without parole in Michigan will have a chance for their cases to be reviewed and ultimately a chance at freedom after the State Supreme Court reaches its decision.
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