Lawmakers should address the status of Michigan's juvenile offenders. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
We were two of more than 100 former prosecutors, judges, state bar presidents, along with former Gov. William Milliken, who joined a friend of the court brief urging the Michigan Supreme Court to apply a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to those serving a mandatory life without parole sentence handed down when they were teenagers.
The Michigan Legislature had already codified the U.S. Supreme Court ruling for cases going forward by removing the “mandatory” part of the sentence, thus allowing the judge in each case to tailor the sentence to the person and circumstances before him or her and give the teen convicted a chance to show they have been rehabilitated.
The Legislature paused when it came to applying the new law to the 361 men and women who were already serving what has been deemed an unconstitutional sentence. They paused because the Michigan Supreme Court had taken up three cases related to the retroactive application of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and they wanted to let the judicial branch follow through on its process.
Now that the Michigan Supreme Court decided not to apply the U.S. Supreme Court ruling retroactively, it’s time for the Legislature to stop the pause and press “play.” In other words, it’s time for the legislative branch to address the issue.
There might be those who will say it will be costly to allow these people to have a parole hearing. We can think of four reasons why we should think twice before believing that argument:
■ Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature could do exactly what Gov. John Engler and the Legislature did in 1998 when they repealed the “650 lifer law” and made it retroactive to the hundreds of people convicted to mandatory life without parole for possessing, delivering, or intending to deliver over 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. By making the change in the law retroactive, Gov. Engler paved the way for those convicted to obtain parole hearings.
■ Our criminal justice system is set up for judges or parole boards to fairly assess whether a person has been rehabilitated so the Legislature would not be establishing a new, untested system.
■ With the passing of MCL 769.25 last year, the Legislature effectively approved the costs of parole hearings for youth convicted of the same crimes as those who are currently serving a life without parole sentence if the conviction came after 2012. If an unknown number of youth in the future are granted such a hearing (and the state absorbs those hearing costs), it’s hard to imagine the Legislature can object to doing the same for the 361 currently serving life without parole sentences for the same crimes.
■ Not allowing any hearings guarantees that the citizens of Michigan will continue to pay increasing amounts for the housing, feeding and medical care of these individuals for decades to come, without any discernible benefit to public safety.
The 2014 National Council of State Legislatures report, Managing Corrections Costs, hits the nail on the head when it states “managing prison populations is key to managing corrections costs. The largest and potentially most sustainable reductions have resulted from changes to sentencing and corrections policies that have safely lowered prison populations.”
That’s what Michigan needs to do — look at common sense changes to sentencing and corrections policies that have the best shot at safely lowering prison populations. The state’s thinking about corrections is rooted in outdated approaches and has not caught up to the current research.
We urge our Legislature to study other states’ approaches to youth involved in the justice system and finish its work on MCL 769.25 by providing hearings to the 361 people serving juvenile life without parole.
Hon. Fred M. Mester (ret.) is a former Oakland County Circuit judge and a former prosecutor.
Thomas Cranmer was an assistant prosecuting attorney in Oakland County and a former assistant chief of the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.