Michigan Supreme Court justices got it badly wrong: A misguided and mean-spirited ruling last week would consign roughly 350 Michigan inmates to die in prison for crimes they committed as teenagers, some as young as 14. This is not what justice under the law should mean in a civilized society.
The 4-3 decision was inhuman and illogical, throwing the fate of the so-called juvenile lifers into the federal courts and Michigan Legislature, which until now has acted as irrationally and callously on this issue as the state Supreme Court.
The state justices ruled that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012, which declared mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles, should not be applied retroactively. Incredibly, a majority of the state Supreme Court was unwilling to give the offenders sentenced under this unconstitutional law a parole hearing in their lifetime.
The court denied any relief from a barbaric law to those who continue to suffer from it, asserting that Michigan juveniles sentenced to mandatory life prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling do not have to get new sentencing hearings.
The decision defies logic, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s unequivocal ruling that mandatory-life-without-parole sentences — Michigan’s maximum adult penalty — violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment when they are applied to juveniles.
Justice Stephen Markman, writing for the majority, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court made automatic life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles — but not life sentences themselves. Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not alter the range of possible sentences, he argued, the ruling should not be applied retroactively.
Hogwash. The U.S. Supreme Court did, in effect, alter the range of sentences, because juveniles who could get only life-without-parole under the former system are now eligible for a lesser sentence, as Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly wrote in a dissent.
The nation’s prisons hold more than 2,500 juvenile lifers. Ohio does not have a mandatory juvenile life-without-parole law, although it does have dozens of prisoners under the age of 18 among its more than 50,000 inmates.
Related legal fights go on at the federal level, including a Michigan case before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Those appeals should continue until justice is done.
Meanwhile, Michigan legislators could help by passing a law that would allow parole hearings for juveniles who were sentenced to mandatory life terms before the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Such hearings would not necessarily release a single juvenile lifer. Members of the state Parole Board could deny parole to anyone they determined still poses a threat to society.
But many of Michigan’s juvenile lifers ought to be released. Dozens have served decades in prison, and long ago turned their lives around. Many were marginally involved with the homicide they were convicted of. Nearly half were not the actual killers, but were convicted of aiding and abetting.
The 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was consistent with science and legal precedent. Juveniles don’t have the same legal rights and duties as adults because they lack the maturity and judgment to handle them. Nor should they suffer the same consequences.
Dozens of state and federal court rulings have set clear precedents for separate penalties for adults and juveniles, including the landmark 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found it unconstitutional to impose a death sentence on anyone younger than 18.
For now, the Michigan Supreme Court has taken the nation backward with an unjustifiably narrow legal interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision. Eventually, however, justice will prevail; the shameful decision by the state Supreme Court will not.
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