I never thought I'd have an opportunity to see the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments in Washington D.C.
Yet, instead of thinking of what an honor it was or how much history that room had seen, I couldn't stop thinking of the lives of young men and women back in Michigan. Young people whose lives hang in the balance, lives that may not have another chance.
I had an opportunity to attend the U.S. Supreme Court as the Justices heard oral arguments in two cases that will decide the future of life in prison without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles. The courtroom was packed and many had camped out the night before in order for an opportunity to hear Bryan Stevenson, from the Equal Justice Initiative, plead the case for eliminating the practice of sending young offfenders to prison for the rest of their lives with no hope of rehabilitation or freedom.
I can still feel the electricity in the room, the sense that this was an historic moment. If the justices are convinced by Stevenson’s arguments in Miller v. Hobbs and Jackson v. Alabama, the futures of more than 2,600 individuals currently serving juvenile life without parole, or JLWOP, sentences could change decidedly. This may be the last time they have such a promising hope of a future where their growth, maturity and individual circumstances matter.
Critics of the movement to end JLWOP caution that if you take a life, you should be held accountable. True. In recent weeks, I've attended rallies for the movement to get justice for Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was gunned down for being black in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. No one can deny that there is nothing more brutal than murder, and there nothing more precious than life.
Yet the science is clear, and points to the reality that children lack the ability to reason and fully understand the consequences of their actions. Holding a teen who could not completely understand what he was doing accountable for his actions doesn't demand the same punishment as an adult offender. In fact, these punishments exacerbate already tragic situations. Victims and their families suffer shattering loss, and so do young offenders and everyone who loves them... and so do you and I.
Society bears the cost of proving food, shelter and health care for these teens for long years of their prison sentence. For the 30, 40, 50 or more years they sit in prison waiting to die, millions are spent that could have gone to education and perhaps saving another troubled child from falling into crime.
Like most people from Michigan, I cringe each time I hear someone announce the rankings of "worst states," fearing that we will be included. You might be shocked to hear that Michigan ranks Number 2 in the nation, behind only Pennsylvania, when it comes to the number of children we have sent to prison for the remainder of their lives. There are currently 359 inmates serving JLWOP sentences in our state's prisons.
The justices are expected to render a decision by the end of June. In court, the argument was made that the unique legal status of children should not be ignored in a criminal context when it is recognized and protected in all other areas of law. This means that if we recognize that children don't have the mental capacity to drive, vote or drink then we can't act like they are the same as adults just because they've committed a crime. Stevenson also argued that mandatory sentences of life in prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment when applied to children.
Here in Michigan, we will continue ratcheting up our advocacy efforts aimed at changing our state’s JLWOP sentencing laws while we wait for the Supreme Court's decision. It is time Michigan changes its approach to sentencing children.
We need people who think that children deserve a second chance. Please contact us to join our effort to end JLWOP sentencing by emailing us at JLWOP@aclumich.org
For more information, read Second Chances: Juveniles Serving Life Without Parole in Michigan Prisons (pdf)