Give juvenile lifers a shot at freedom

The Detroit News

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for youth offenders — those under 18 years old — were unconstitutional. And yet in Michigan, hundreds of prisoners convicted before that ruling still face life behind bars.

The court’s ruling, logical and appropriate, only applied to future crimes and sentences. It didn’t make the application retroactive to offer those who already had been serving life sentences a chance to prove themselves worthy of parole, or at least a rehearing. The justices left that up to the individual states.

Michigan decided to make only marginal changes in its youth sentencing laws, providing sentences of 40 to 60 years for juveniles and denying those already locked up the chance at freedom. The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, sided with lawmakers.

Youthful offenders convicted before the ruling deserve a chance to earn a parole, and a new approach should be weighed for punishing those who make horrible decisions before they are fully-formed adults.

Neurological studies show the adolescent mind is not fully developed and has less impulse control than an adult brain. The law has long held that those with mental impairments are not as culpable for crimes as those who can be fully held accountable for their actions.

Yet Michigan is among several states that two decades ago moved away from the traditional emphasis on rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system and toward a more punitive treatment of young criminals.

That included lowering the age for trying an offender as an adult -- kids as young as 13 can be tried in adult courts and sent to the adult prison system. Today, 14-year-olds are sharing cells with grown men.

The new trend, adopted in several neighboring states, is to focus on age-appropriate punishment and effective rehabilitation and lower recidivism rates, while still prioritizing community safety. The majority of states now prosecute those under 18 in juvenile court, and house them in suitable facilities if they are convicted and sentenced to prison. While locked up, they receive mental health and other counseling services, as well as an education.

Currently, 360 inmates are in prison who would be eligible for a rehearing if Michigan made adherence to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling retroactive. It should do that, and it should revise procedures for housing juveniles in adult prisons.

Many of these children committed heinous crimes. But they should not be subjected to the cruel and unusual punishments inflicted on them by predatory adult inmates.

Society benefits if these young offenders can be rehabilitated and released when they no longer present a danger.

Any new regulations should give judges the discretion and freedom to conduct a careful and thoughtful examination before imposing a sentence on a juvenile. Guidelines should also spell out the criteria judges need to consider before imposing a maximum sentence on a child.

Revamping the guidelines for youths could have an added benefit of reducing the state’s hefty $2 billion corrections budget. Allowing those who are not a danger to society to go free or keeping some from ever having to serve time behind bars may not drastically cut the operating expenses, but every bit of savings will help.

Supportive lawmakers hope to have proposals revamping juvenile punishment and addressing retroactivity ready for the legislature by the first of the year. Lawmakers should bring Michigan in line with other states in adding compassion and common sense to the juvenile criminal code.