At a hearing today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan along with the Michigan Catholic Conference and dozens of juvenile justice supporters urged House Judiciary Committee members to support a package of bills that would prohibit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Although, no vote was scheduled, committee members promised the ACLU and supporters to use the next few weeks to review testimony, research and visit the individuals in prison who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 18. There are currently more than 300 individuals serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as children.

“We are optimistic that the Michigan legislature will correct this injustice,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “This legislation is not a get out of free card -- It simply aims to make these individuals eligible for parole consideration and allows judges to use discretion when deciding what type of punishment best fits the crime.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Paul Condino, D-Southfield, sponsored one of the bills and began the hearing by alluding to international laws and treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which explicitly prohibits these harsh sentences.  He further called Michigan’s practice of incarcerating juveniles in adult prisons for life a human rights violation.

“I stand committed to working this through,” he said during the 4 hour hearing. “And I’m already seeing some common ground.”

Currently, the United States sentences teenagers, as young as 13, to spend the rest of their lives in prison without the opportunity for parole. The United States stands out as the only country, besides Somalia, that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibiting these mandatory sentences.

All juvenile offenders in Michigan are serving their time in adult prisons and neither the juries that heard their cases, nor the judges who issued their sentences, had any discretion to mete out lesser sentences. These types of sentences exist in 43 states, but five states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida and California account for two-thirds of the imprisoned youth. Michigan, however, takes the law a step further and requires that juveniles convicted of “felony murder” be sentenced to life without parole even if they did not commit the crime themselves, but were merely present when someone was murdered.

In its recent “shadow report” to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the ACLU cites Michigan’s mandatory sentencing of youthful offenders to adult prison without the possibility of parole as an example of  the pervasive institutionalized, systemic and structural racism in America. The 215 page report, Race & Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice, claims that an overwhelming majority of those sentenced are minorities; 69 percent are African American, although African Americans account for only 15 percent of Michigan’s youth population.

Michigan residents appear to be ready for changes to these sentencing laws.  According to a state-wide poll conducted by the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, 72 percent of respondents said they believed adolescents under the age of 18 who commit violent offences are strong candidates for rehabilitation.  In addition, recent research recognized by the Supreme Court in its opinion prohibiting the death penalty for juveniles, casts doubts on the cognitive capacity of teens to understand the criminal consequences for their actions and their ability to understand the judicial system or cooperate in their own defense. 

In 2004, the ACLU of Michigan released their report, “Second Chances,” which calls attention to these policies. Legislation to correct these laws was introduced in Lansing a year after the report was published. In 2006, a report released by the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed “concern” over state laws that allow juvenile offenders to be incarcerated for life and asked the U.S. to ensure that no juvenile is sentenced to life without parole.

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