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Michigan Threatens Ban on Mandatory Juvenile Life without Parole

February 5, 2014

In the wake of Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court case that found mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole to be unconstitutional for youth under age 18, many states have failed to revise their mandatory sentencing schemes to comply – a challenge that Michigan lawmakers and advocates are taking on this legislative session.

So far, three juvenile sentencing bills have been introduced: H.B. 4808, S.B. 318, and S.B. 319. While the bills do technically eliminate mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for young people, advocates contend that the bills leave too much room for extreme and even unconstitutional sentencing.

Michelle Weemhoff, the Associate Director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), an NJJN member, explained, “There are three areas where MCCD feels that these bills could be improved. If these issues are not addressed then we’re not in favor of these bills moving forward. First, the bills as they stand do allow for juvenile life without the possibility of parole. The caveat is as long as they address specific mitigating factors during the hearing, the prosecutor can still file a motion to sentence a defendant to life without the possibility of parole. It gives all the power to the prosecutors.”

“Second, if the prosecutor chooses not to file a motion for life without the possibility of parole, the other choice the court has for sentencing is a minimum of 25-40 years, the maximum being 60 years, which is still a really long time. Finally, the bill is not retroactive. So the 358 people currently serving the sentence would never have the individual circumstances in their cases be heard before the parole board. This issue is being debated across the country and will likely return to the Supreme Court, but it’s unfortunate that these bills do not establish retroactivity.”

Weemhoff said, “We are actively encouraging legislators to reconsider, given that these cases are still moving through the court system and we would not want to pass legislation that ultimately would still violate constitutional rights of young people.”

(NOTE: Since this interview, H.B. 4808 and S.B. 318 have passed their respective chambers, and S.B. 319 has passed both the House and Senate.)

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