Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 12, 2013

Editorial: State must resolve mandatory-life issue


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — More than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Michigan lawmakers are still dithering, which means there is no progress on the fate of the 360 or so inmates who were under 18 when they committed crimes, mostly murder.

It must be clear from the start that this is not a get-out-of-jail card for individuals of any age who committed a serious crime, usually murder.

Instead, the court ruled that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment should apply to very young criminals who were sentenced to mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The ruling was aimed at the mandatory nature of the sentences, not the sentences themselves. Mandatory sentences for a variety of crimes, including many drug crimes, were much in vogue in the U.S. back in the 70s, 80s and 90s as politicians looked for ways to “get tough on crime.”

Some mandatory minimums make perfect sense, but others do not. Hundreds of people convicted of possessing relatively small amounts of drugs, for instance, were given sentences well beyond what their crime called for, all in the name of getting tough on thugs and their drugs.

The argument against mandatory life sentences for juveniles and very young defendants is that many of them could not fairly conceptualize what they were doing. Others were influenced by peer pressure. Others were just plain stupid and did things an adult with more experience might never do.

Proposed legislation could give current inmates a chance at release in the future and eliminate mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles in new cases. They could still get a no-parole life sentence, but it would not be mandated.

For current juvenile lifers, resentencing hearings would be created so prosecutors could still seek life with no parole. Bills may also allow prisoners to ask for minimum terms of 20 to 40 years with a maximum no lower than 60 years.

Michigan has the second-highest number of juvenile lifers in the U.S. and spends nearly $100 a day per prisoner, way more than than the state spends to send kids to college. That’s nuts.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment; so where are all the constitutionalists who demand strict, word-for-word adherence to that document?

Kids — particularly ones with guns — often do incredibly stupid things. To make them spend 70 or 80 years in prison, no matter the circumstances, for an act they committed as a child is extreme.