Juvenile lifers win second chance at freedom
Detroit – Hundreds of inmates serving mandatory life sentences without parole for murders committed as juveniles could get a second chance at freedom after a federal judge Monday ruled a state law unconstitutional.
The order by U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith appears to end a nearly eight-year legal battle and comes six years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles, arguing they are less culpable and have greater capacity for rehabilitation.
Following the landmark 2012 ruling, state lawmakers created legislation that purported to comply with the Supreme Court and that included the possibility of parole. Goldsmith said the legislation ran afoul of the Constitution because it did not grant offenders credit for good behavior that could reduce a prison sentence.
Goldsmith on Monday gave the state 14 days to calculate good-time and disciplinary credits for each prison inmate who already has been re-sentenced under the unconstitutional state law.
“Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for fairness in our criminal justice system,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Michigan. “Hundreds of youths serving unconstitutional life sentences will now benefit from good-time credits that they earned in prison for good behavior that were taken away from them by mean-spirited retroactive legislation.”
There was no immediate comment from Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.
Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the department would review the order and act accordingly.
More than 360 offenders are subject to the state law. The state wants 236 of the offenders re-sentenced to life without parole.
About 100 other offenders have been re-sentenced to a lesser term, including more than 30 who have been paroled. About two dozen inmates await resentencing and could receive less than life terms.
Korobkin does not expect a flood of paroles, though some inmates could be freed in the short term.
“This could potentially shave years off sentences that are already too long,” he said. “It’s up to the parole board. They don’t have to let someone out if they are a risk to the public. But this gives them an opportunity. And this will save the corrections department million of dollars.”
The judge’s order Monday impacts those inmates whose offenses happened before 1998, he added.
Lawyers for the state argued the constitutional and state law issues should have been left to a state court.
“This Court’s enforcement of federal constitutional guarantees will not involve any encroachment on state jurisdiction or trigger friction with state courts,” Goldsmith wrote.
The state legal team argued inmates serving life sentences could not have a sentence reduced under state law.
“This argument is unconvincing,” Goldsmith wrote. “The language may mean that the good time credits are not actually applied to a life sentence so long as it remains a life sentence. But there is no reason to think that a prisoner serving a life sentence could not, nonetheless, earn good time credits.”