BY CHRISTINA HILDRETH
Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 1, 2005
Michigan jails house the third-highest number of inmates serving life sentences without parole who were sentenced as minors, according to a report released last month. The only states with more lifers sentenced as juveniles are Pennsylvania and Louisiana.
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State Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) announced last week that she is crafting legislation in an attempt to lower this number.
"We're not saying that people shouldn't be held accountable for these terrible deeds, but sometime in their life, they should have a second look," she said.
The report, issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said more than 2,000 inmates are in U.S. jails for life because of crimes they committed as juveniles. Michigan prisons hold more than 300 of these inmates, some sentenced at ages as young as 15. A separate report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year noted that under current state law, life without parole is a mandatory sentence for a juvenile convicted of first degree murder in an adult court.
Brater's bill would nullify a 1997 law that allows juveniles of any age to be tried as adults for heinous crimes. If passed, the bill would rescind a judge's ability to sentence youths to life without parole, as well as permit the re-examination of certain prisoners to determine if they still pose a threat to public safety.
But don't expect the bill to be introduced soon. Brater said she knows she is tackling a controversial issue and will have to work with "all the stakeholders" to come up with a bill that could garner bipartisan support.
But supporters of juvenile justice reform say now is the time for change. Nationally, juvenile justice law is undergoing massive changes, with many states overturning tough legislation passed in the 1990s that stiffened sentences for juvenile offenders and lowered the age at which the accused could be tried as adults.
"It can be a very big political hot potato; no one wants to be soft on crime," said Shelli Weisburg, legislative director of the Michigan chapter of the ACLU. "But this is really a juvenile justice issue that is long overdue."
While Brater's proposal has not yet encountered loud resistance, some state legislators are hesitant to rush into reform.
Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt) said despite the recent studies, the state Senate needs to see much more information before it can entertain Brater's proposed bill.
"To redo a judicial sentence is really, really tricky," he said. "It's not that we don't need to relook at this, we just have to be really careful."
Cropsey pointed to the case of John Rodney McRea of St. Claire Shores. Rodney was convicted in 1950 of killing an 8-year- old boy, slashing his throat and genitals and hiding his body under a concrete slab in a drain field. Although McRea was only 15 at the time, state law allowed him to be tried as an adult.
McRea was sentenced to life without parole, but in 1972, then-Gov. William Milliken commuted his sentence because of his good behavior. After being released, he completed his parole and moved to Florida with his wife and son. Since his move, Florida police have investigated him in connection with the disappearances of two young boys.
"(This) would never have happened if he had not been let out of prison," Cropsey said. "That's why we need to say, 'OK, who are we talking about here to be letting out?'"
But reform supporters say many youths who commit violent crimes can change with proper rehabilitation.
"What we know in terms of moral development - and we're learning more all the time - is that it comes on in some people much later than we normally think," said Tom Croxton, a psychology professor emeritus who studied juvenile justice and ethics at the University.
To hold juveniles morally responsible for crimes they committed when "they were not morally developed makes no sense," he added.
The United States stands out internationally for its tough juvenile justice system. According to the Amnesty International report, all countries except the United States and Somalia have ratified international treaties condemning "life imprisonment without possibility of release" for "offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age."
The U.S. Supreme Court boosted juvenile justice reform last year when it ruled that juvenile executions violated the Eighth Amendment in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited arguments similar to Croxton's, writing, "Retribution is not proportional if the law's most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity."