On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentencing without parole for juvenile offenders, considering it a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The highest national court did not specify whether this decision would be limited to future convicts, those still on direct appeal, or whether it would apply retroactively to juveniles already behind bars, leaving that decision up to state courts and lawmakers. Tuesday, the Michigan House of Representatives approved Senate Bill 319, updating Michigan law to comply with the Supreme Court ruling only in future cases and those on direct appeal. However, cases regarding past juvenile offenders were addressed by merely adding a “trigger” that would allow rehearings for juvenile lifers if the Michigan Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court were to rule again in favor of retroactivity. While the proposed bill complies with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling for future cases, the state legislature should approve resentencing hearings for all Michigan juveniles facing life without parole.
Last November, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the state had to immediately comply with Miller v. Alabama and make all juvenile lifers eligible for parole if they had served at least 10 years in prison. The judge’s ruling was stayed when Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed the decision, arguing that the parole hearings weren’t warranted under existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Schuette currently awaits a hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals. Similarly, the Michigan Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in three juvenile lifer cases in early March, during which it is expected to review the ambiguity surrounding retroactivity.
The “retroactivity trigger” was added to the bill in the Michigan House seemingly due to these pending court cases. With more than 350 juvenile lifers, Michigan is host to the second-highest population affected by the bill’s future. By relying on court rulings to settle the matter of retroactivity, the state legislature is acting in cowardice. It costs the state $2 billion per year to run the Michigan Department of Corrections. The state government should act now, rather than wait, in order to relieve the burden on taxpayers and give juvenile convicts a second chance.
In the 2012 Supreme Court ruling, one of the major arguments against juvenile sentencing for life without parole was that “children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes.” Their “lack of maturity” and “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” leads to “recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.” Sentencing juveniles to life ignores the fact that they lack the ability to fully comprehend the nature of crimes they might commit. Furthermore, in that critical age of development, there are several factors — such as socioeconomic and family background — that can contribute to the motives behind an individual’s crime. Juveniles should be given a second chance and the opportunity to be rehabilitated. Putting these potentially constructive members of society behind bars will not help them on an individual level, and will punish crimes for which they may not be fully accountable.