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Michigan's top court to consider whether to further limit no-parole life sentences

Silhouette of concertina barbed wire on a prison fence.
Adobe Stock
Silhouette of concertina barbed wire on a prison fence.

The Michigan Supreme Court said it will hear arguments in cases that could lead to a ban on automatic life prison sentences for people who were 19 or 20 years old when they were involved in a major crime such as murder.

The court took a significant step in 2022 when it said mandatory no-parole sentences for 18-year-olds convicted of murder violated the Michigan Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel or unusual” punishment.

Now the court will consider whether to extend that principle to people who were 19 or 20.

In an order Friday, the Supreme Court said it would hear arguments in the months ahead in cases from Wayne and Oakland counties.

No-parole life sentences are still possible in Michigan for someone 18 or younger, but they're no longer automatic. Judges must hold hearings and learn about that person's childhood, education, potential for rehabilitation and other factors. The burden is on prosecutors, if they choose, to show that a life sentence fits.

Critics of life sentences for young people argue that their brain is not fully developed, which sometimes leads to tragic decisions.

Riya Saha Shah is the senior managing director at Juvenile Law Center, a non-profit that opposes juvenile life without parole sentences.

“There are things that occur in the moment that affect a person's ability to act rationally and thoughtfully and consider the consequences of their actions,” she said. “When you are voting, your brain is operating in a very different way than if you're in an emotionally charged situation. Or if you're with older peers that are influencing your decision, your brain acts differently.”

A number of states around the country have banned life-without-parole sentences for minors, especially after a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, starting in 2012. Massachusetts' highest court in January raised the minimum age for automatic life sentences from 18 to 21.

The Michigan Supreme Court will consider the cases in the fall term. A spokesperson said oral arguments have not yet been scheduled, but the cases will be scheduled in the same session.

A.J. Jones is a newsroom intern and graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Sources say he owns a dog named Taffy.
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