Kids Sentenced To Die in Prison

August 03, 2016

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  This inhumane practice is condemned throughout the world and is prohibited by international law.  Yet, in Michigan, there are over 360 prisoners serving life without parole for offenses committed before the age of 18, including some who were as young as 14.  These cases even include individuals who did not actually commit the homicide, but were convicted as an aider-and-abettor or under the “felony murder” doctrine. 

In 2011, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the practice as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.  In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory laws that impose automatic life-without-parole punishments on juveniles are unconstitutional.  In Michigan, however, the state refused to apply the Miller ruling to juveniles who are already in prison, insisting that they are not entitled to resentencing and must never even have their cases reviewed by a parole board. 

In 2013 Judge John Corbett O’Meara agreed with the ACLU and ruled that all juveniles serving mandatory life sentences must be given parole hearings. The state appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which heard arguments in 2015. 

While the appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its Miller ruling was retroactive.  The Montgomery decision triggered into effect a new law that had been passed by the Michigan legislature in anticipation that Miller might be declared retroactive.  The new law provided for retroactive resentencings that would allow some youth to be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and set a harsh mandatory sentencing range for everyone else. 

In light of these new developments, the Sixth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court in May 2016 so that we could amend our complaint to challenge the new law.  We immediately amended our complaint and, in July 2016, asked for a preliminary injunction to stop the resentencings from going forward until the court could rule on the constitutionality of the new statute. 

Unfortunately, Judge O’Meara denied the preliminary injunction and dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs had to wait until after they are resentenced and then raise their claims on direct appeal of their new sentences in state court.  We appealed Judge O’Meara's ruling, and oral argument in the Sixth Circuit is scheduled for September 2017.

(Hill v. Snyder; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg; National ACLU Attorneys Steven Watt, Ezekiel Edwards and Brandon Buskey; co-counsel Deborah LaBelle and Ron Reosti.)