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What the SCOTUS decision in juvenile lifer case means for Michigan

U.S. Supreme Court building
Claire Anderson

For years, states around the country had laws that made a sentence of life without the possibility of parole mandatory for children who committed serious violent offenses. In Michigan, that meant that some 360 juvenile defendants were sent to prison for life. Over the past decade, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions found that those mandatory sentences were unconstitutional. But on April 22, the Supreme Court released a decision — with conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh penning the majority opinion — that complicates those years of reform.

Back in 2012, the Supreme Court said in Miller v. Alabama that children are different from adults, and sentencing them to life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The court said that only in rare cases — when the defendant displayed “permanent incorrigibility” — could they be sentenced to life without parole. Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court found that the Miller decision could apply retroactively. More than 100 people in Michigan have been freed as a result.

The Supreme Court, which has a newly conservative majority, ruled yesterday in Jones v. Mississippi that judges don’t need to establish that the defendant is irredeemable before sentencing them to life without parole.

So does this change things for the more than 140 incarcerated Michiganders still awaiting resentencing hearings? Yes, and no, says attorney Deborah LaBelle. She has spent decades litigating on behalf of incarcerated people in Michigan. She says that Jones is a sort of reinterpretation of past cases, but Miller and Montgomery are still the law, too. She adds that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling still asks judges to consider children’s differences from adults, and then leaves “everything else sort of as mushy as it's been.”

“[The decision] lacks an understanding of how it works at the trial level. And it shows a complete disinterest in how racial disparities and unequal treatment based on geography are playing out, for example, in Michigan,” LaBelle said.

Our state has the highest number of people awaiting resentencing hearings. And, unlike a number of other states, Michigan has not abolished juvenile life without parole. And how children are sentenced in these cases can vary widely across jurisdictions.

“So I worry that judges in the counties that have been giving this out will then say, OK, I don't have to make any finding [of permanent incorrigibility]. I'm just going to reimpose a sentence that, in some cases, the judges were the first to impose 25 years ago,” LaBelle said. “So this does not strengthen what we know that the Court has held in a series of cases: that kids are different, and they deserve a second chance.”

For Efren Paredes, the issue is a personal one. He’s currently serving a life sentence at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater for a crime he committed when he was 15 years old. He says he believes the Supreme Court’s latest ruling doesn’t overrule Miller or Montgomery.

“I don't believe that judges are going to reverse the progress that we've made since the Miller ruling,” Paredes said.

Paredes says that, following Miller and Montgomery, Michigan judges have only affirmed previous life without parole sentences in a small number of cases, and he’s hoping things won’t change much for incarcerated people in Michigan in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jones.

Paredes says he’s been in communication with many juvenile lifers — some who are incarcerated now and some who have been released from prison — about the Court’s decision. He says many of them share his sentiment about Jones v. Mississippi’s potential impact in Michigan.

“This case doesn't change the Miller or Montgomery cases that the U.S. Supreme Court previously handed down,” he said. “We believe that sentencers will continue to follow the trend that has been set in Michigan and not abandon the language in those landmark rulings.”

For more, listen to the full conversations above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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