The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that it has been awarded a grant of $100,000 by the JEHT Foundation to form the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative to investigate the issues surrounding the growing number of children sentenced to life sentences without the possibility of parole. Attorney Deborah Labelle will be the Project Director.

“Life sentencing for juveniles is a heartbreaking issue and there is a real need to examine the impact these sentences have on our communities, state agencies and families,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.  “We are extremely fortunate to have Deborah Labelle, a nationally recognized expert on this issue, as our director of this initiative. 

The imposition of life without parole on minor children is explicitly prohibited by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by President Clinton in 2000, and is widely considered a violation of international law and fundamental human rights.  Despite this, Michigan, and forty other states, permit these sentences to be imposed on juveniles.  Michigan is one of thirteen states that have no lower age limit for life sentences without possibility of parole. 

“We know that in Michigan, there are 150 individuals serving “life without parole” sentences for offenses that occurred when they were sixteen years old or younger,” said Project Director Labelle. “Two-thirds of those have been sentenced since 1990 and over 70% of these children are African-American.”

In Michigan and many other states juveniles can be transferred to adult courts and sentenced to a life without any chance of parole no matter what their age or consideration of the circumstances of their offense.  Recent research casts doubts on the cognitive capacity of adolescents and teens raising serious questions about juveniles’ ability to understand criminal consequences for their actions, and their ability to understand the judicial system or cooperate in their own defense. 

These concerns received national attention recently in the cases of Lionel Tate in Florida and Leon Miller in Illinois.  Leon Tate was tried as an adult and sentenced to life without possibility of parole in connection with the death of a playmate when he was twelve years old.  A Florida Court of Appeals recently overturned his sentence, finding that the trial court should have ordered an evaluation to determine if Tate was competent to stand trial.  In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court held that a mandatory life sentence for Leon Miller, who served as a lookout during a fatal gang shoot-out when he was fifteen, was unconstitutional. 

Currently there is no national census of the number of youth serving life sentences without possibility of parole.  However, sweeping changes to state laws in the 1990s have made it easier to try juveniles as adults and subject them to ‘natural life’ sentences.

In addition to the prevalence of these sentences, the report will also address issues of race, gender and economic disparities in reviewing whether there are inequities within the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole.  There will be an emphasis on looking at alternative ways of viewing and responding to the problems of these sentences.   

The JEHT Foundation was established in April 2000 to support its donors' interests in human rights, social justice and community building. The name JEHT stands for the core values that underlie the Foundation's mission: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance.