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With two landmark rulings, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear: Mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. This has meant that the more than 360 so-called juvenile lifers in Michigan -- the second-highest total in the nation -- are eligible for re-sentencing, and possibly a second chance. It’s also meant time-consuming case reviews and court hearings, and, for victims’ families, often a painful reopening of the worst moments in their lives.The week of December 12th, 2016, Michigan Radio took a close look at how Michigan is following up on these landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings.Are juvenile lifers in Michigan getting a second chance?It's a difficult discussion that has life and death stakes, murders and victims, issues of justice and fairness, and a lot of legal maneuvering. It's also a conversation about how we, as a society, should treat the most troubled children among us.There are few easy answers. See our entire series below.

A roundup of our juvenile lifers in Michigan series

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

In the 1990s, Michigan took a tough stand against teens under 18 convicted of violent crimes. Prosecutors in Michigan started locking more of them up for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles. The justices found that it violated the Eighth Amendments' prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."

In 2016,  the High Court ruled that their 2012 ruling was retroactive - meaning states had to reexamine life without parole sentences inmates received when they were under 18.

Michigan Radio produced an in-depth series looking at these "juvenile lifers" in Michigan and how the Michigan judicial system has been handling the reexamination of their cases.

Here's a rundown of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who gets a second chance?

Here's a breakdown of our coverage: 

1) Juvenile lifer debate started as a result of drug crime wave

Our first piece shows how life sentences without parole ramped up in response to the drug wars.

"[T]he drug trade adopted a business model that relied on giving kids guns and using them as soldiers and couriers." says Tony Tague, who was Muskegon County's Democratic prosecutor 30 years ago.

Since young people could so easily commit felonies, go to a juvenile system and be released a few years later, officials sought tougher laws to keep these kids with guns behind bars.

Read the story here.

2) INFOGRAPHIC: Juvenile lifers in Michigan

Michigan has the second highest number of inmates serving juvenile life without parole sentences.

How big is this compared to other states?

Click on this link to the infographic where we break the number comparisons down.

3) Prosecutors ignoring Supreme Court call to give juvenile lifers a new sentence, says ACLU

Michigan prosecutors filed motions to uphold life without parole sentences in almost 60% of juvenile lifer cases. This despite the fact that the court said life sentences should only be given to those who show "irreparable corruption."

This doesn't sit well Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney leading the ACLU of Michigan's Juvenile Life Without Parole project.

Read more here

4) It's illegal to lock a juvenile up forever – unless they're a "rare exception"

The Supreme Court clarifies you can't sentence teenagers to life in prison without parole except in "rare" cases. What, exactly, does "rare" mean? 

We explore the question here.

5) Department of Corrections faces mountain of paperwork in resentencing juvenile lifers

The Michigan Department of Corrections is struggling to examine all the paperwork around the 363 juvenile lifers in the state.

Over the past three or four months, they've processed 1.2 million pages of documents.

Read more here

6) Court says life for juveniles should be rare. Longtime corrections official says that's about right.

What do people working with those behind bars think about the Supreme Court's decision?

Patricia Caruso, former Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, thinks the U.S. Supreme Court's decision is "about right." 

Read the rest of her response here

7) With all due respect to the U.S. Supreme Court, "you can’t factor out the victims"

While some are in favor of the Supreme Court's evaluation of life sentences being unfair to those under 18, some people, like Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, believe serious costs exist that must be considered when considering new sentences for these inmates.

To read about these costs, go here

8) Michigan prosecutors balance new rights of juvenile lifers against promises made to victims

When you're a prosecutor, how do you navigate upholding a juvenile lifer's rights versus what you promised to victims of their crimes?

We address this — and some victim perspectives — in this story

9) Judge or jury: Who should resentence juvenile lifers?

Should a judge or jury decide whether the retried juvenile lifers get a chance at parole?

We explored this question on Stateside

10) In Wayne County juvenile lifer cases, questions about who gets a second chance, and why?

Wayne County has almost half of all juvenile lifers in Michigan — over 150. How are they choosing who gets a second chance? We examine this in this story

11) Here's the story of the only juvenile lifer in Michigan to get second chance

On June 4, 1975, 17-year-old William Washington received a life without parole sentence for his role as an aider and abettor in first degree murder. He was recently resentenced and subsequently released after spending 41 years in prison.

Here his story here.

12) Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Philadelphia takes a different approach

In Michigan, all juvenile lifer cases are supposed to be reviewed, but a Philadelphia judge resentenced all juvenile lifers for 20 to 35 years to life.

Read more about this, and why some people aren't happy about it, in our story

13) Many of those convicted as adults get a shot at parole, why not these juvenile lifers?

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle says giving these inmates a shot at parole and/or a new sentence is just a display of "basic decency."

We also know that they are not automatically going to get out. They still have to go to the parole board, and the parole board has to make a determination that they are no risk to public safety,” LaBelle said.

Read more here.

14) Interactive Infographic shows how many have been resentenced in Michigan

Of the 363 juvenile lifers in Michigan, 24 have been resentenced as of this publish date. See where here.


Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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