Michigan’s attorney general announced Monday that he will appeal a federal judge’s order requiring the state to consider paroling about 350 prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
"In every case where a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison, a victim was already sentenced to death – forever. The victim's family then grapples with the aftermath of post-traumatic stress, depression, unyielding grief and visits to a grave."
He said last week’s order would force families of murder victims to “relive the crime that took their loved ones away.”
Schuette said the order called for hearings not required by the U.S. Supreme Court or state courts, adding that “it ignores the authority of state court sentencing judges to object to parole when public safety requires it.”
The order, issued by U.S. District Court Judge John C. O'Meara, applies to inmates who have served at least 10 years.
In an earlier ruling, O’Meara had cited the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama Supreme Court case in which the high court ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In his order, O’Meara cited Miller as well as the 2010 Graham vs. Florida Supreme Court ruling that sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional for crimes other than murder.
The Supreme Court has noted in its rulings that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.
O’Meara’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
The suit challenged a law requiring that children charged with crimes including first-degree murder be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced to life without parole.
“This is a civil rights action challenging the treatment of youth inconsistent with their status and alleging that their punishment is cruel and unusual,” Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney in the case, told JJIE.org.
LaBelle said courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly made it clear that life without parole for those convicted of crimes they committed as juveniles amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“So we challenged that statute, saying that’s inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling that youths should have a meaningful opportunity for release upon maturation and growth,” she said.
LaBelle expressed shock that Schuette announced plans to appeal O’Meara’s order.
“It’s eternally surprising to me that the state would want to continue to impose punishment that the U.S. Supreme Court has said is cruel and unusual, particularly an attorney general, who’s supposed to be upholding the state and the U.S. Constitution.
“The only argument I’ve heard in support of wanting to fight it is the attorney general continually citing the rights of victims’ families, but they’re not monolithic,” LaBelle said.
“We’ve had many families of victims who support the second chance and the process going forward on a fair basis ... The only way to fairly go forward for all victims’ families is to have an equitable process in which they have a voice.”
Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which seeks to end the practice of life without parole for juvenile offenders, praised O’Meara’s ruling and order.
“I think that this is exactly the kind of approach that the Supreme Court intended in its rulings in Miller and in Graham, as it scaled back extreme sentences that have been imposed on young people in our country,” Lavy said.
“In both decisions, the [Supreme Court] emphasized the need for rehabilitation and for accountability measures for children and certainly said repeatedly that because kids are not adults and they are still developing that we can’t impose these final irrevocable judgments on them while they’re still growing and changing, and so we should be able to provide an opportunity to check in on them later in life.”
Lavy criticized the Michigan attorney general’s decision to appeal the order.
“It’s an unfortunate use of Michigan taxpayer dollars that they’re going to spend on litigation rather than focusing energy on fixing a system that the [U.S. Supreme Court] court has ruled unconstitutional,” she said.
Schuette argued the Supreme Court’s rulings should not apply to inmates already in prison. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1989 Teague v. Lane ruling, which he said established what’s commonly known as the “Teague Rule,” stipulating that Supreme Court rulings are generally not retroactive in matters of judicial process.
He also cited a state court ruling: In November 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Miller vs. Alabama does not apply retroactively to people convicted of murder as teenagers who have already been found guilty and exhausted their direct appeals.
Schuette also said O’Meara’s ruling could undermine the statutory authority of state judges to block parole for violent criminals when public safety justified doing so.
In his order, O’Meara said Michigan must create an “administrative structure” to determine which inmates should be eligible for parole for crimes committed as juveniles.
The order said those who have served at least 10 years must be given notice that their eligibility for parole “will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner.”
He ordered the state to comply with the order by Dec. 31.
It also requires the state to:
• Schedule proceedings, including public hearings, for eligible prisoners seeking parole.
• Set up a procedure to determine whether each eligible prisoner’s application should be considered by the entire state Parole Board.
• Ensure the proceedings are “fair, meaningful and realistic.”
• Make certain the Parole Board explains its decision in each case.
O’Meara’s order also forbids vetoes of Parole Board decisions by a judge or anyone else and requires that no prisoner sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile will be deprived of “any educational or training program which is otherwise available to the general prison population.”
If the state fails to comply with the order by Jan. 31, the judge threatened to appoint a special master “to make available to prisoners sentenced to life without parole for juvenile crimes the process this order envisions.”