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Federal court rebukes state for denying credits for juvenile lifers

Prison bars
flickr user Thomas Hawk
Michigan has the second-highest number in the nation of prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole as minors.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Michigan cannot deny credits for good behavior to prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole as minors.

The U.S. Supreme Court said in 2012 that a juvenile could not be sentenced to automatic life in prison with no chance of parole, except under rare circumstances.

The Michigan Attorney General's office largely resisted applying that ruling to prisoners who had been sentenced before 2012, until a separate 2016 ruling mandated it be applied retroactively.

Michigan Radio has covered the fight of juvenile lifers extensively since 2016. You can read the entire series here

Tuesday’s decision responded to a 2014 state law that eliminated credits for good behavior for prisoners had been resentenced after the 2012 ruling. Those good behavior credits can often get a prisoner in front of the parole board sooner.

Attorney Deb Labelle is the director of the ACLU’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. She said on Stateside Wednesday that for most people sentenced to life without parole as children, getting in front of the parole board means getting out of prison.

“[Out of] every person, every one of these youth that has gone before the parole board in Michigan to determine whether they can be safely released, all but one have been immediately recommended for parole,” Labelle said.

Labelle’s been working on this issue for several years, and she said she’s tried to tell Attorney General Bill Schuette that releasing rehabilitated prisoners is a win-win solution.

“Why would you want to keep them there at the cost to all of us of millions of dollars by denying them good time? Let's resolve this! And there was no interest in that.”

Schuette's office did not wish to comment.

Judge Jane Branstetter wrote in the decision that she hopes this is the last in a long line of legal disputes on the subject and that “it is now time to devote the energies of the parties to rectifying the constitutional harm suffered by plaintiffs.”

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