Juvenile injustice

It’s time for Michigan to abandon its unjust juvenile lifer law, and the stain it has left on the state’s reputation


For decades, Michigan remained one of the few places on the planet where people who were too young to drive or smoke cigarettes legally could receive mandatory sentences of life in prison — the maximum adult penalty in the state.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court finally banned mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders, including Michigan’s barbaric juvenile lifer law, ruling that such automatic sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Click here to read more Blade editorials.

Predictably, Michigan’s extremist attorney general, Bill Schuette, requested that the change apply only to the handful of prisoners who challenged the state’s law, as well as to future prisoners — but not to those serving earlier sentences.

This is a ridiculous argument by an attorney general who is seeking to circumvent the ruling in any way he can. Constitutional rights aren’t limited to those who ask for them in court. They, and the law, must be applied equally.

A federal judge in Detroit properly ruled against Mr. Schuette this week. Judge John Corbett O’Meara declared that every Michigan inmate who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile must have a chance for parole.

Michigan’s governor and Legislature, who profess to be reinventing the state, should use their influence to disavow Mr. Schuette’s plan to appeal the ruling. It’s time for Michigan to relegate this unjust law — and the stain it left on the state’s reputation — to the relics of history and move forward with parole hearings now.

Michigan is home to 350 of the nation’s 2,200 juvenile lifers, trailing only Massachusetts. Granting these lifers parole hearings will not, in itself, mean the release of a single offender. Members of the state parole board could deny parole if they determine that a prisoner still poses a threat to society.

But many juvenile lifers should be released now. Dozens have served decades in prison and long ago turned their lives around. Many were marginally involved with the homicide they were convicted of; about half were not the actual killers, but aided and abetted the crime.

The United States stood virtually alone among nations in handing down mandatory life sentences to juveniles. No reasonable person should object to wiping out that nefarious distinction.

Michigan’s juvenile lifer law, which applied to offenders as young as 14, was enacted during the 1980s — one of many ineffective and Draconian get-tough-on-crime laws created during a decade that launched a costly prison-building boon. Nearly 75 percent of Michigan’s juvenile lifers are African American.

The law was always as irrational as it was unjust. Juveniles don’t have the same legal rights and responsibilities as adults because they lack the maturity and judgment to handle them.

Teenagers are more impulsive and unstable than adults, even disregarding the abuse and dysfunctional homes that many young people who wind up in the criminal justice system have endured.

Michigan must stop enforcing an unconstitutional law. Mr. Schuette should stop trying to uphold a shameful part of Michigan’s history.