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Juvenile justice at last

Jack Lessenberry

Back in 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools, the old “separate but equal” notion, was unconstitutional.

 Now what would have happened if after that ruling, some state attorney general in Mississippi had argued: “Well, we understand that applies to the future, but we’ve got some schools that were segregated before that ruling, and they should stay that way.”

No doubt the Mississippi Supreme Court back then would have backed him up. That would have properly seemed outrageous.

Eventually, federal marshals and the U.S. Attorney General would have let Mississippi know in no uncertain terms that they call it the Supreme Court … because it is.

Well, sadly, a version of that happened in Michigan, and our chief law enforcement officer and our supreme court got their knuckles rapped by the nation’s highest court yesterday.

Nearly four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Miller vs. Alabama that sentencing juveniles –kids under 18 – to life sentences without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. That should have been seen as retroactive.

Michigan has nearly 350 inmates who got such harsh sentences as juveniles before that decision. If something is ruled unconstitutional, it means the practice always was unconstitutional. That means that every one of those prisoners should be entitled to a parole hearing. That doesn’t mean they should automatically be released.

Some of them won’t be and some probably shouldn’t be. But we should have immediately seen that they had the right to have their cases reviewed. But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette didn’t see it that way. He absurdly argued that this Supreme Court ruling should essentially be ignored, because it would upset the families of the victims.

Apparently he was absent the day in law school when it was explained that even convicted offenders have rights too. Our state was further embarrassed two years ago, when a highly partisan Michigan Supreme Court sided with Schuette and said that while such sentences are unconstitutional in the future, those sentenced in the past don’t have to get parole hearings.

That was a monstrous injustice – and yesterday the nation’s highest court agreed. Those sentenced as juveniles in the past will now have the chance to argue for parole. This is only fair. We know now that the human brain takes time to mature. Who among us would want to have their lives judged by the way we were at 17?

Defying the U.S. Supreme Court is never a good idea. Interestingly, that was the message Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to be sending Schuette and those like him yesterday. Four years ago, Roberts was in the minority in Miller vs. Alabama. He then thought such life sentences for juveniles were constitutionally allowed. But yesterday, the chief agreed that since the court had ruled that way, its ruling was necessarily retroactive.

I know something about state attorneys general, having written a book about the nation’s longest serving one. In today’s Detroit Free Press, an editorial asks, “Michigan citizens would be right to wonder what motivates their attorney general. Is it a respect for the law … or a stubborn and oft-proven wrong sense … that has to do more with his politics and opinion?”

Sadly, the answer is very clear.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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