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Group pushes for 2nd chance for 'juvenile lifers'

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Michigan judges would have greater discretion in sentencing minors convicted of violent crimes under a bill now on Gov. Rick Snyder's desk.

But some advocates for social justice say the options are still far too harsh.

Ronald Simpson of Flint spent 27 years in prison and, even after his own son was murdered on Father's Day in 2001, he pushed so that his son's killer wouldn't spend the rest of his life behind bars.

"I believe in second chances," says Simpson, who now works with the American Friends Service Committee on behalf of so-called juvenile lifers.

"If you mess the second chance up, then hey, that's on you, but I think juveniles should certainly be given a second chance, in some meaningful way."

Under Senate Bill 319, prosecutors could still seek life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, but judges could choose to sentence them instead to between 25 and 60 years.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing minors to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, but didn't specify whether that applies to those already behind bars.

Simpson maintains that many juveniles have a high capacity for rehabilitation, which is why he says he fought so hard to make sure the boy convicted in his son's death had a second chance.

"He ended up going through the juvenile system, and he served about six and a half, seven years, and at age 21 he was released," Simpson relates. "Overall, he's done pretty good."

There are more than 350 juvenile lifers in Michigan serving mandatory terms for violent crimes they committed as minors, the second highest number in the nation.

Several court challenges to the retroactive issue are scheduled to be heard this year.