Editorial: Rethink how young convicts are treated

The Detroit News

This week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting a reprieve for convicts serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles forces Michigan to adhere to common sense criminal justice reforms. State officials and lawmakers should use the ruling as the impetus to rethink how it deals with young criminals.

Michigan has lagged the rest of the nation in changing its views on whether the worst teenage criminals can be rehabilitated.

It was just one of four states that refused to apply retroactively a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited both the death penalty and life without parole sentences for those who committed their crimes before they turned 18. So while state courts applied the new standard to current juvenile convicts, it allowed those convicted before 2005 to continue to languish in prison with no hope of ever getting out.

That wasn’t fair, and it did not serve the cause of justice. And it affected about 300 inmates in Michigan.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, expressing concern about the impact on public safety of making that group eligible for release, argued the court’s ruling was not retroactive, and the Michigan Supreme Court agreed. The U.S. high court, by a 6-3 margin, has rebuked that position.

The Michigan inmates, some now elderly, will be eligible for new sentencing hearings, and many of them will be released.

Michigan’s Legislature could speed the process by allowing the parole board to directly consider the cases without a sentencing rehearing, and it should.

But even if it doesn’t, the court’s ruling should prompt Michigan to change its attitudes on young offenders.

“People grow up,” says Dave Moran of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan  Law. “And they present less danger as they grow up.”

That contention flies in the face of the way Michigan has treated the worst teen criminals for decades, believing a certain class of criminal could never be reformed. Research now refutes that theory. Yet the state continues to keep behind bars convicts who have aged well beyond the danger age.

Michigan is also being sued by a group of young convicts who suffered sexual abuse after being sentenced to adult prison. The state has won the early rounds in that case, but the mood of the Supreme Court on juvenile justice is clear. Schuette should resume settlement talks with the plaintiffs aimed at revamping youthful offender sentencing policies.

Likewise, it should get ahead of both state and federal lawsuits challenging the sex offender registry. Too many teens are on that list, and will be for the rest of their lives, for offenses that hardly make them a threat to society. That includes cases of consensual sex between high school students and frivolous incidents of public nudity. In Michigan, urinating outdoors can land the offender on the sex registry.

The goals of the criminal justice sentence should be to protect the public and to punish and then rehabilitate the criminal. Rigid sentencing policies that are harsher than they need to be do not help accomplish those objectives, and meanwhile strain the state budget.

The Supreme Court ruling forces Michigan to do what it should have done a decade ago. It should not wait for the next court decision to more broadly apply common sense to juvenile justice.