The Michigan Supreme Court has decided more than 350 inmates serving automatic life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were teenagers won’t get new hearings that could have led to their release.
In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled the prisoners — most convicted of committing or being accomplices in murders — aren’t eligible for parole even though the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2012 such sentences are unconstitutional.
The highest court in the land ruled two years ago that juveniles should not automatically be sentenced to the same required punishment as adults because there are significant cognitive development differences that must be taken into account by judges imposing sentences. But the justices didn’t make clear whether their ruling applies retroactively.
In a decision written by Justice Stephen Markman, the Michigan court said the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply retroactively to the inmates under either federal or state court precedents.
The state court’s majority said the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding — that non-parole life sentences for juveniles are “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment — applies going forward but not to past cases.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has argued that parole for any of the juvenile lifers would be heart-wrenching and disrespectful to the families of the murder victims, hailed the decision.
“Today the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the rights of crime victims and their families,” Schuette said. “This ruling should bring a measure of peace to the many families who struggled with the possibility of painful resentencing hearings for cases successfully prosecuted decades ago.”
But opponents — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan that represented the three inmates — decried the ruling as “heartbreaking.”
“Here we have a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has said violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Yet the Michigan Supreme Court is unwilling ever to give the 350 juvenile lifers currently in Michigan’s prisons a parole hearing in their lifetime.”
The ACLU is reviewing its options for a further federal legal challenge of the Michigan Supreme Court ruling, Moss said.
“But we are not letting this issue drop,” she said.
Tuesday’s ruling by Justices Markman, Brian Zahra and David Viviano and Chief Justice Robert Young says neither the Eighth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution nor the Michigan Constitution “categorically bars the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender.”
Justices Mary Beth Kelly, Bridget Mary McCormack and Michael Cavanagh dissented and said the court should have ruled in favor of parole hearings.
They noted state lawmakers earlier this year passed a new juvenile sentencing law that “significantly altered Michigan’s sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders convicted of crimes that had previously carried a sentence of life without parole.”
Under the new law, judges can impose 40- to 60-year sentences in cases where prosecutors don’t ask for life-without-parole sentences. If a prosecutor files for life without parole, the judge has to hold a hearing on that motion as part of the sentencing hearing.
Kelly, who wrote the dissent, said the new law shows the Michigan Legislature “was clearly cognizant of the issue surrounding whether (the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling) was to be applied retroactively.”
The Michigan Catholic Conference, which opposes non-parole life sentences for offenders younger than 18, called on lawmakers to react by changing the state law.
“This decision is disappointing,” the Catholic Conference said in a statement issued by spokesman David Maluchnik. “We call upon the Legislature to pass a measure that will allow for juveniles sentenced to a life term before the (2012) decision to have the opportunity for a parole hearing at some point during their sentence.”
Maluchnik’s statement said the conference’s position is based on “the need to balance compassion and protection for victims with the opportunity for offenders to rehabilitate their lives, which should be the goal of the corrections system.”