« Senator Bernie Sanders releases criminal justice reform plan under banner "Justice and Safety for All" | Main | Seeking input and perspectives on "hot topics" in sentencing law, policy and practice »

August 19, 2019

"More than half of Michigan juvenile lifers still wait for resentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent report from the Detroit Free Press spotlighting how slow the state has been to implement the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings in Miller and Montgomery limiting the use of LWOP for juvenile offenders.  I recommend the piece in full, and here is how it gets started:

Three and a half years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile lifers should have the opportunity to be re-sentenced and come home, more than half in Michigan are still waiting to go before a judge to learn their fate, according to a Free Press analysis.  That means nearly 200 inmates are waiting for a judicial review.

“We are not resolving cases at the rate that you would hope, given that the United States Supreme Court said these sentences should be rare," said Tina Olson, an attorney with the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office (SADO), whose office is representing roughly two-thirds of the state’s cases.

In 2012, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that juveniles should no longer be sentenced to mandatory life terms, citing developmental differences in the teenage brain, as well as the ability for rehabilitation.  The high court doubled down on the decision in January 2016, ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller opinion should be applied retroactively.

While the 2016 Montgomery decision should have resulted in a clear-cut path for juvenile lifers, the system remains speckled with question marks.  And since the opinion left the application of the ruling up to each state, there is little agreement on what this process should look like.  Take, for example, Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania, which had almost as many juvenile lifers as the entire state of Michigan.  It is expected to complete all but 10 of its resentencing cases by the end of the summer.  Not a single juvenile lifer in the county has been given a new life sentence so far.

By and large, prosecutors in Michigan defend the slower process, contending they are thoughtfully weighing each case.  "We tried to take a serious look at the criteria set forth in Miller, and put those factors into play when making those decisions on each case," said Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker, whose office was responsible for making sentencing recommendations for 23 defendants.  Thirteen were originally recommended for continued life sentences — one was subsequently re-evaluated and changed to a term of years.

"I don’t think there is anything wrong with the pace," he said, explaining that a good number of the state's juvenile lifers have not yet served 25-years — the minimum requirement for resentencing — and therefore getting them before a judge is not as paramount.  Only four of the 23 juvenile lifers in Becker’s county, for example, have served 25 years so far.

While the state has made progress around resentencing — as of July 1, 86 of the state’s 354 juvenile lifers had been released, a 300% increase since fall 2017 — defense attorneys and a new crop of progressive prosecutorial candidates are raising questions.  Olson, and others like her, point to the fact that in July 2016, when Michigan prosecutors had to submit their resentencing recommendations, they, as a whole, requested continued life sentences for 66% of the state’s juvenile lifers — a figure that appears incongruous with the Supreme Court’s ruling that the sentence should just be reserved for "the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."

While prosecutors have been able to walk back and change recommendations for continued life, and judges can rule against a prosecutor's recommendation, the original sentences more or less placed defendants on a slower track, as those originally recommended for a resentencing (known as a term of years) were prioritized in the process.  The 66% that were slotted for continued life were, therefore, de-prioritized.

Under Michigan state law, a recommendation of term of years goes directly to a judge for sentencing, while a recommendation of continued life is a much more time-consuming legal process that can involve a hearing, evidence and witnesses.  For several years, Michigan criminal justice players were debating whether these hearings should be heard by a judge or a jury — an uncertainty that, until the Michigan Supreme Court weighed in last summer, prompted many prosecutors to place such cases on hold.

And so, while there are several factors that have contributed to the slow resentencing process — clunky bureaucracy, disagreements over procedures, and a lack of an official database tracking the process — the original resentencing recommendations have been highlighted as a major contributing factor. The first in a litany of interconnected holdups.

August 19, 2019 at 11:13 AM | Permalink

Comments

I AM ONE OF THOSE FORMER JUVENILE LIFERS WHO WAS RESENTENCED LAST YEAR AND WAS RELEASED 10 MONTHS AGO. THESE PROSECUTORS ARE USING STALL TACTICS TO KEEP THESE MEN AND WOMEN INCARCERATED FOR MANY YEARS TO COME EVEN AFTER THE SUPREME COURT RULED THAT THEIR SENTENCES WERE UNCONSTITUTIONAL. IN 2012 WHEN THE U.S SUPREME COURT RULED THAT LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE FOR CHILDREN WAS UNCONSTITUTIONAL MICHIGAN WAS ONE OF THE STATES THAT REFUSED TO COMPLY WITH THEIR RULING. IT TOOK A 2016 RULING FROM THE U.S SUPREME COURT THAT MADE THE 2012 RULING RETROACTIVE, MEANING THAT THE CHNAGES IN THE LAW WOULD APPLY TO ALL UNITED STATES JUVENILE LIFERS, NOT JUST SOME. THE FORMER JUVENILE LIFERS THAT HAVE BEEN RELEASED ARE DOING AMAZING WORK. SOME ARE ENROLLED IN COLLEGE, MANY ARE CONTRIBUTING TO THEIR COMMUNITIES AND MANY ARE HOLDING DOWN GOOD JOBS. THESE ARE THE SAME MEN AND WOMEN WHO WERE ONCE DEEMED IRREPARIABLE. ITS A WASTE OF TAX PAYER MONEY TO KEEP THESE MEN AND WOMEN SERVING THESE UNCONSTITUTIONAL SENTENCES. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT DECADES BEHIND BARS FOR CHILDREN WHO'S BRAINS WERE UNDERDEVELOPED AT THE TIME THESE CRIMES WERE COMMITED. ITS TIME TO END THIS INJUSTICE AND GIVE THESE MEN AND WOMEN THEIR DAY IN COURT. MICHIGAN PROSECUTORS TOOK AN OATH TO UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, NOW ITS TIME FOR THEM TO ACT ON THAT OATH THEY SWORE TO UPHOLD AND CORRECT THESE UNCONSTITUIONAL SENTENCES, ITS THE RIGHT THING TO DO AND YEARS OVERE DUE.

Posted by: JOSE | Aug 27, 2019 11:27:24 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB