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Bills would take life without parole off the table for juvenile offenders in Michigan

Photos from our series on juvenile lifers in Michigan.
Steve Carmody, Jodi Westrick, and Thomas Hawk.
Michigan Radio and Flickr - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

A bill package in the state Legislature would take life-without-parole sentences off the table for juvenile offenders in Michigan.

The bills would also set new minimum and maximum sentences (10 and 60 years) for people under 19. And they would allow for a parole review after ten years served, “where the incapacity of youth must be considered.”

Most states have now adopted similar legislation after U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last decade made mandatory life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles.

Jessica Zimbelman of the State Appellate Defender’s Office said that given the latest brain science, sentencing people under 19 to life with no possibility of release is cruel and counterproductive.

“They're more vulnerable to negative influences and pressures. They have limited control over their environments and horrific circumstances that lead to crime,” Zimbelman said. “Their character is not formed.”

Zimbelman and other criminal justice advocates who testified at a Michigan Senate committee hearing this week pointed out that juvenile lifers who have been released after the Supreme Court mandated re-sentencing have so far demonstrated remarkably low rates of re-offending. In Michigan, the rate is only 1%, with two people arrested for weapons offenses that did not include violence.

But Kalamazoo County prosecutor Jeffrey Getting said these bills go too far beyond the standard courts have set. He, some other county prosecutors, and some Republican members of the Legislature believe that life without parole should remain on the table for juvenile offenders convicted of the most horrific crimes.

“The U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court have never held that life without parole is unconstitutional. They have held that the automatic imposition of life is unconstitutional,” Getting said.

“These bills do not try to fight crime. These bills go beyond current law, and prohibit the imposition under any circumstance for any juvenile of the sentence of life without parole.”

For now, Senate Bills 119-123remain in the Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary, And Public Safety.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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