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March 12, 2012

Taking stock of Michigan's interests in JLWOP issues before SCOTUS

10656781-largeA week from tomorrow, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  As I have said before, all the primary briefing and amicus briefing in Jackson (linked here) and Miller (linked here) suggest that many SCOTUS Justices are likely to find these cases quite vexing in the wake of their Eighth Amendment work in Roper and Graham

And, as a new series of articles appearing in local papers, there are many states beyond these involved in the prosecutions before SCOTUS that will be following these cases very closely.  In particular, as this article from Michigan highlights, a few states that never before had to worry much about the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence might have its criminal justice world rocked by Jackson and Miller.  The article appears to be the first in a week-long series gearing up for the SCOTUS arguments, and it is headlined "Judgment Day for Michigan's juvenile lifers: The U.S. Supreme Court considers banning life without parole for minors." Here are some excerpts:

He was 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old.  That night TJ Tremble rode his bike to the home of Peter and Ruth Stanley.  He had the .22-caliber rifle given him by his dad.  He had alcohol in his belly, some also from his dad.  And, police say, he had murder on his mind.

Before daylight, the Michigan youth would be behind bars for the rest of his life.  Or maybe not.  Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether mandatory life sentences are too cruel for anyone so young.  It will be exactly 14 years, 11 months and 1 day since Tremble got on his bike.

Now 29, is it possible he has changed in the second half of his life, or that he can change with more time?  Should he at least have the consideration to one day walk free?  Or does death make it different?

In a state with more “juvenile lifers” than almost any other, the answers will resonate throughout Michigan as the high court addresses this: Are life sentences, without any chance of parole, unconstitutional even for juveniles who commit unthinkable crimes?  If the court’s earlier rulings are an indication, the answers could be yes....

An MLive Media Group investigation last November detailed how mandatory sentencing laws and get-tough reforms propelled Michigan near the top of the nation in juvenile lifers. Only Pennsylvania has more.

Nearly two dozen inmates were profiled.  Several had not committed the killing, but were present.  Sometimes the accomplices got more time than the killer, a quirk of mandatory sentencing laws, rejected pleas and juries.

In the midst of the series, the Supreme Court announced it would consider whether juveniles are too impulsive, their brains too underdeveloped, their remaining lives too long to receive the same sentences as adults in death cases.

This story, and stories to come this week, are meant to explore what that could mean for Michigan.  At present, 359 inmates are serving life in the state for crimes committed as minors, one out of seven nationally, according to MLive’s updated analysis.  The number was one higher until last month, when a prisoner from Kalamazoo was resentenced to a parolable term -- 33 years after he fled a grocery store robbery.  His partner stayed behind and killed the owner.

Six of Michigan’s 359 were 14 at the time of their crime -- the same as two inmates whose cases are being considered by the Supreme Court....

The nation’s youngest lifers are small compared to the 2,500 overall.  Seventy-three were 14 and 13 at the time of their crimes, according to Supreme Court filings.  The six serving time in Michigan for crimes as 14-year-olds are all males, as are most of the state’s juvenile lifers.  Unlike others, they are equally split between blacks and whites, and rural and urban backgrounds.

That’s contrary to the state’s juvenile lifer population overall: 69 percent black and largely from urban areas, according to MLive’s analysis.  Most were 17 at the time of their crime, but 45 percent were 16 and younger.  Wayne County sentenced the most, 41 percent, followed well back by Oakland, Genesee, Kent and Saginaw counties.

Of the class of 14-year-old lifers, all were sentenced after Jan. 1, 1997.  That’s when the age group was added to those who prosecutors could automatically try as adults for serious crimes.

Some recent related posts on Jackson and Miller cases:

March 12, 2012 at 11:49 AM | Permalink

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Does anyone have the link to the articles mentioned?

Posted by: Gideon | Mar 12, 2012 7:17:50 PM

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