LANSING, Mich. (March 3, 2023) — Earlier this week, Senate and House members introduced bipartisan legislation that abolishes juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in Michigan to align our state with 26 other states that have taken steps to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, that declared automatically sentencing a child to life without parole was unconstitutional. Additionally, these bills comply with recent Michigan Supreme Court decisions by eliminating mandatory life without parole sentences for 18-year-olds and requiring consideration of age, immaturity, and the other factors outlined in Miller.
“The United States Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court have ruled that automatically sentencing youth to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. Michigan law needs to recognize that juvenile offenders deserve a chance at rehabilitation,” said Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor). “We shouldn’t turn our backs on juvenile offenders and throw away the key. Instead, we should ensure that Michigan’s juvenile justice system provides a chance for rehabilitation, reintegration, and redemption.”
Together, Senate Bills 119–123 and House Bills 4160–4164 eliminate life without the possibility of parole for youth under 19, provide a minimum sentence of no less than 10 years and a maximum sentence of no more than 60 years, and allow for parole review after 10 years where incapacities of youth must be considered. “Incapacities of youth” are shorthand for the Miller factors: the juvenile’s age and immaturity; family home environment; circumstances of the offense, including the role the juvenile had in the offense, and any influence of peer pressure.
“The law clearly distinguishes children from adults—this is why ending juvenile life without parole is necessary. These are kids’ lives we are talking about. I can’t stress the importance of this legislation enough: It’s the difference between life behind bars and the opportunity for redemption, grace and mercy,” Rep. Amos O’Neal (D-Saginaw) said. “The state should provide the necessary help, resources, and training for these young people to re-enter society. We must move from a punitive-focused corrections system to one centered around restorative justice.”
Scientific research shows that there are key developmental differences between youth and adults that impact youth’s decision-making, impulse control, and susceptibility to peer pressure. These differences do not excuse youth from accountability for their actions, but the U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court have repeatedly recognized that because of these differences, youth are less blameworthy than adults and more capable of change and rehabilitation.
“The Supreme Court has made clear that life without parole sentences for young people should be rare.” Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) said. “The Michigan Supreme Court has placed the burden on the prosecuting attorney to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a young person is one of the rare people who should receive a life without parole sentence.”
Eliminating juvenile life without parole does not allow for the release of offenders prior to their maximum sentence. Rather, it would provide an opportunity for review by the Parole Board after a reasonable period of incarceration, one that takes into consideration the unique circumstances of each defendant
“This legislation gives us the opportunity to rectify this at the state level. Our understanding of effective criminal justice policies has changed over time, and so too should our laws,” said Rep. Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington). “There are people in Michigan prisons who were sentenced as children to life without parole, and their cases need to be reviewed and given another look.”
A study of the Philadelphia District Attorney Office’s resentencing of juvenile lifers found a recidivism rate of just 1.14 percent among 174 former juvenile lifers.
“As the Supreme Court has recognized, children are ‘constitutionally different than adults for purposes of sentencing’ because they have less culpability than adults—a conclusion that is supported by both social science and brain science documented in Supreme Court decisions,” said Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John S. Cooper. “This package of bills supported by Safe & Just Michigan positions our state to join 26 other states and D.C. in ending the cruel and unusual practice of sentencing children to die in prison.”
Ronnie Waters, a Safe & Just Michigan community engagement specialist who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile but released in 2020 after a resentencing hearing, stressed the importance of this package. “There is a misconception that Miller v. Alabama ended juvenile life without parole for good, but it did not,” he said. “States like Michigan can still sentence children to death by incarceration.”
These bills have the support of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, Safe & Just Michigan, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.
“Michigan has a moral imperative to step up and join the majority of other states that have stopped sentencing young people to die in prison,” said Jonathan Sacks from the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.