Michigan to rule on challenged juvenile lifer law

By Sarah Alsaden, Daily News Editor
Published June 4, 2011

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan will issue a ruling soon on a complaint filed that challenges a law mandating that juveniles spend life in prison without the opportunity of parole for committing a felony or first-degree murder.

The complaint — which is supported by the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union — was filed in November by Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Labelle on behalf of nine plaintiffs who were under the age of eighteen at the time of their sentencing.

According to Rod Hansen, a spokesman for the U.S. District Court, the complaint does not seek to challenge the convictions, but rather challenge the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole.

Hansen said the complaint argues that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the 8th and 14th amendments of the Constitution — namely that in addition to being cruel and unusual punishment, it is also the denial of due process to not have an opportunity for parole.

Labelle, who is the lead counsel on the case and a cooperating attorney with the ACLU, said she couldn’t speculate about the ruling of the case — which is currently being reviewed by Judge John Corbett O’Meara, the federal district court judge in Ann Arbor — though she expects the ruling will be available soon.

She added that the complaint challenges the juvenile lifer law by arguing that it is unconstitutional to give juveniles the most severe form of punishment that an adult criminal could receive without considering their youth.

“The U.S. Constitution is violated by placing youth in prison for the rest of their lives until they die, giving them the harshest punishment you can give to anyone, including an adult who is a serial murderer,” Labelle said.

Labelle said the law should be revised since it does not allow the court to consider the age and developmental capabilities of the juveniles.

“This is not a get out of jail free,” Labelle said. “We all know that youth are impetuous, that their brains are not fully developed, that they have enormous peer pressure on them … ”

By placing juveniles in jail without parole, she said, the law fails to acknowledge that the juveniles have not finished developing and deserve another opportunity to live as a citizen in society.

“What we’re saying is … they grow up,” she said. “You need to look at them when they grow up and say have you matured? Have you been rehabilitated? Do you deserve a second chance? That’s all the lawsuit is about.”

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, one of the founders of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, said she was disappointed with how the complaint was filed, since the families of the victims of the crimes committed by the plaintiffs were not notified that the complaint was filed.

“These families have a stake in this discussion,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “They have a right to know that it’s going on, they have a right to come and be heard … The fact that we’re not being told about this campaign to retroactively undo these sentences, this is very troubling to victim’s families.”

Bishop-Jenkins said she believes the reports published by the Michigan chapter of the ACLU were “disingenuous” because they only tell the plaintiff’s stories and contradict court and police records, as well as fail to consult the victims to hear their side of the story.

“They are publishing these very sympathetic sounding propaganda pieces about these cases and they are not actually publishing the full facts,” Bishop-Jenkins said.

She added she believes that both national policy and public opinion support the sentence of life in prison without parole, which will make it difficult for the court to rule in favor of the complaint.

“We are confident that the Eastern District Court is going to find what has already been found by court after court after court across this country that have affirmed the constitutionality of life without parole for teens who commit premeditated murder,” she said. “It’s never been overturned by a court, ever, and we are sure and confident that it will not be overturned this time.”

Labelle, however, said the general sentiment of people within the state of Michigan is different regarding policy over the issue. According to Labelle, Wayne State University did extensive polling a few years ago and found that 95 percent of those surveyed in Michigan opposed life in prison without parole.

Labelle said there are many family members of victims that strongly support a change in the law that sentences juveniles to life in prison without a chance for parole.

“There are many judges and victims’ family members that have come forward and said either we had no idea that these kids would die in prison or we don’t believe this honors the memory of our family member who died,” Labelle said. “It’s a double tragedy. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette (R–Mich.) — whose office serves as council to the state — declined to comment on the pending case.