On my first day at work at ACLU, I was horrified to discover that right now there are over 300 children, or inmates who were children when they were incarcerated, serving life sentences in Michigan prisons with no chance of parole.

Life without parole is a harsh penalty, justifiable when a serious crime has been committed, as justice meted out, as an effort at deterrence and as a way to keep law-abiding citizens safe.

But each year in the United States, children as young as 13 years old are sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole. This is hard to justify for any reason, especially in light of the fact that society has traditionally recognized that children deserve special protection because, distinct from adults, they are not yet fully formed and therefore vulnerable.

In most nations it is accepted that children are different from adults and not accountable in the same way to strict standards of liability for criminal behavior.

Scientific studies confirm that children’s brains are not yet fully developed, and that children are, in many cases, not able to reason like adults. The United States is the only nation that allows life without parole for juvenile offenders.

In Michigan, the laws are particularly punishing and judges have very little discretion about sentencing.

If you are 17 or older, you will automatically be tried as an adult.

If you are 14, 15 or 16, the prosecutor, not the judge, determines whether your case will be heard in the juvenile justice system, where the focus is on teaching and rehabilitation-- because they are dealing with children-- or if you will be sent directly to the adult criminal system, where a life sentence without parole is mandatory for a first degree felony conviction, regardless of the circumstances and regardless of how old you are.

And if you happen to be the 14-year-old along for the ride with the guy who pulled the trigger, you could get the same sentence.

Under these rules, children as young as 14 are incomprehensibly expected to be able to understand the charges against them and navigate a complicated legal system, often with inadequate legal representation. And if they are convicted, they are housed with adult prisoners, with few services and very little protection.

Just like that the door slams shut on these kids and they are condemned to living entire lives behind bars with no second chances, no appeal.

The Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. ACLU of Michigan is advocating in Lansing to change these cruel laws. Presently, there is a package of bills before the state House (HB594, HB4595, HB4596, HB4518).

You can help by calling your legislators and asking them to support legislation that prohibits nonparolable life sentences for minors.

By Katie Jacob, journalism student at Oakland University and will intern with the ACLU of Michigan throughout the summer.