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May 15, 2012

New report highlights inequities in Michigan’s JLWOP sentences

JlwopmapAs reported in this new press release, the public policy group Second Chances 4 Youth along with the ACLU of Michigan has release a new report "documenting the systemic disadvantages facing juveniles in the adult criminal justice." This report, which it titled “Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth,” is summarized in the press releade this way:

The 38-page report explores the fiscal and human costs of juvenile life without parole sentences and the disproportionate punishments and documented racial disparities found in the plea bargaining process for youth accused of certain crimes. The findings rely on publicly available data produced by the Michigan Department of Corrections and survey responses from individuals originally charged with first-degree homicide in Michigan for crimes committed as youth since 1975. The report documents the many challenges youth face in the criminal justice system, including that:

• Race seriously affects the plea bargaining process for adolescents. Youth accused of a homicide offense where the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was a person of color. In addition, there are clear geographic disparities with Oakland, Calhoun, Saginaw and Kent Counties offering lessor sentences to youth at significantly lower rates than the state average.

• Juveniles reject plea offers at much higher rates than adults; therefore adults receive lessor sentences for comparable crimes. Juveniles are less equipped to negotiate plea offers because of their immaturity, inexperience, and failure to realize the value of a plea deal. Many report that they did not fully understand the nature of the charges they were facing, the crime they were on trial for, or the meaning of parole.

• Attorneys who have represented youth convicted and sentenced to life without parole in Michigan have an abnormally high rate of attorney discipline from the State Bar of Michigan. About 5 percent of all attorneys are reprimanded, however 38 percent of counsel representing youth sentenced to life without parole have been publicly sanctioned or disciplined for egregious violations of ethical conduct.

Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole. In the last five years, there has been a downward trend in imposing such sentences across the nation.  Michigan is one of only six states deviating from this national movement. Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger.

Intriguingly, this new report does not at all discuss the pending SCOTUS cases of Jackson and Miller, which could possibly result in a ruling that all LWOP sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  Perhaps that is wise; it remains hard to predict exactly what the Justices will end up doing in those cases when they hand down an opinion in the coming weeks before the end of the current Term.

Moreover, this new report categorically urges, inter alia, that Michigan "abolish Michigan’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole for children who commit homicide offenses prior to the age of 18" and "provide an opportunity for parole for any youth having served ten years of a life sentence with annual reviews thereafter and mandatory public hearing every five years."  In part because the Jackson and Miller cases both involve offenders who committed murders at age 14, and in part because SCOTUS has never required a particular timeline for parole consideration, there is little chance that even a very broad SCOTUS ruling in Jackson and Miller will require many (or even any) of the reforms urged by this new report.

May 15, 2012 at 04:22 PM | Permalink

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