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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.

Settlement reached for Michigan's juvenile lifers, schedules "prompt" resentencings

Person in orange jumpsuit sitting behind prison bars
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Michigan prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles will receive resentencing hearings “as expeditiously as possible” and get rehabilitation programming that could increase their chances of parole.

That’s according to a settlement announced Wednesday between attorneys for the ACLU of Michigan and the state Attorney General over 163 “juvenile lifers” who are still awaiting resentencing.

"This week’s settlement will establish a timeline for all prosecutors to promptly schedule the hearings to give these class members the opportunity to demonstrate their rehabilitation and right to release," the ACLU of Michigan said in a statement Wednesday. "The settlement will also require access to rehabilitative programming that had been previously denied."

In the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued multiple rulings declaring such sentences unconstitutional. The state was previously ordered to provide more than “hundreds of individuals with earlier opportunities for release,” according to the ACLU of Michigan.

But some county prosecutors dragged their feet on providing resentencing hearings, or sought the same life-without-parole sentence, says plaintiffs’ attorney Deborah LaBelle.

“Michigan then passed a statute saying, ‘OK, we’ll resentence them,’ but it didn't set a timeframe,” says Labelle, who has been advocating for reform on this issue for nearly 20 years. “And so now over four years later [after the U.S. Supreme Court’s second ruling on juvenile lifers,] half of the people haven't even had a chance to step in front of a judge and say, ‘I am rehabilitated, please give me an opportunity to go to the parole board.’

“And during this time, we’ve lost a number of clients. They’ve died waiting in prison, waiting for their opportunity just to be resentenced.”

Of those, 120 have already been resentenced and released in the wake of these lawsuits, according to the ACLU of Michigan.

“For everyone who has been released, there hasn't been a single problem,” LaBelle says. “The parole board has gotten it right. They've released almost everyone that's come in front of them in four years. People are back in their communities being productive citizens.”

Thanks to an earlier mandatory sentencing law for homicide-related crimes, more than 360 people in Michigan received life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles - the second-highest number of any state in the U.S., LaBelle says.

This settlement, which still has to be approved by the court and LaBelle’s clients, creates a schedule for prosecutors to review the cases of those still awaiting resentencing, and determine whether they still want to reimpose a sentence of life without parole - a punishment the U.S. Supreme Court said should be reserved “for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

Prosecutors also have the option to seek a different sentence. Either way, the settlement allows prosecutors 90 days to complete a new review of class members who haven't been resenetenced, and additionally provides a 60-120 day time limit for how long prosecutors have to prepare their case for court, dependent on when the crime occurred.

The settlement also makes those still awaiting resentencing eligible for rehabilitation programming in prison - something parole boards often consider when deciding whether an individual should be released.

“The Department [of Corrections] says, ‘Well, if you're going to die in here, what's the point of rehabilitative programing to get you out?’ So this settlement now fixes that,” LaBelle says.

“The Attorney General’s office is satisfied with the settlement that was reached in this case,” Ryan Jarvi, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said in an email Wednesday. “We view it as a reasonable resolution to a long-standing legal disagreement.”

The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and the National Organization of the Victims of Juvenile Murderers did not immediately return requests for comment.

But on its website, the NOVJM states the following position:

“We believe the vast majority of teen criminals are able to be rehabilitated and should continue to be treated in the juvenile justice system, as is now the case. But Criminal Justice is a delicate balancing process. In our lives one issue is key: If the offender appears to be an unrepentant sociopath, for example, who shows little likelihood of ever being deemed safe to be free among us, why would any caring society sentence the VICTIM’S family to the “life sentence” of unending legal battles, unending and open-ended hearings, trials, parole hearings, and constant re-engagement with the offender who so devastated their lives?”

Still, for LaBelle, this settlement is another indicator that resistance to resentencing for juvenile lifers has lessened.

“People now understand that giving someone an opportunity to go in front of the parole board, with no guarantee of release, is really the way to -- we want people to be given a second chance, a second look, is all," LaBelle said. "So we're hopeful that these prosecutors will take the opportunity to say, ‘No, let's give a term of years, and let's let the parole board look at people to see whether they still pose a risk.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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