There are 10,944 inmates in Michigan, and 346 are serving a life sentence without parole for crimes committed as teenagers, according to the state Department of Corrections. A recent study by the University of Texas cites Michigan as the second-highest number of juveniles serving life without parole in the country. This alarming statistic reflects a fundamental injustice in the state’s corrections system, and news that the legislature may ban such practices could not have come soon enough. With any hope, two crucial U.S. Supreme Court cases may displace the need for a state law by finding life sentences for teenagers to be unconstitutional. Michigan’s excessive number of teens facing life sentences is appalling and must be corrected by either state law or favorable Supreme Court rulings.

The state House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has held two hearings on bills relating to the University of Texas’s findings. The bills would abolish life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18 years old or commute those sentences to include the possibility of parole. The committee hopes to present a collection of bills to the full House later this fall.

An effort to prohibit life-without-parole sentencing for minors is desperately needed. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for minors, based partially on research by Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis that found a large number of juvenile offenders on death row in Texas were products of abuse, suffered mental illnesses or exhibited signs of brain dysfunction, among other problems. It’s unjust to sentence juveniles as adults when they don’t think, behave or react in the same way that adults do.

And aside from treating teenagers unfairly, life without parole is a self-defeating policy for any corrections system. The purpose of the corrections system should be to rehabilitate offenders, not simply punish them. But forcing juveniles to spend the rest of their lives in prison with no hope of returning to society explicitly precludes rehabilitation. The state prison system should work toward reforming young offenders and giving them a second-chance to contribute to society as adults who have learned from their mistakes.

Luckily, if the bills fail to pass, there’s still hope. Two U.S. Supreme Court cases that will be heard in November could address the issue of teenagers in prison nationwide. The first case, Graham v. Florida, involves a 16-year-old currently serving life without parole for armed home robbery. In the other case, Sullivan v. Florida, a 13-year-old boy was convicted for sexual battery. Both cases argue that life without parole sentences for juveniles who didn’t commit homicide violates the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Supreme Court should realize, as it did in 2005, that teenagers can’t be held accountable for their actions to the same extent adults can. Leaving them to rot behind bars for the rest of their lives does not serve the true purpose of the corrections system as a method of rehabilitation. To recognize society’s responsibility to juveniles, life sentences without parole for juveniles should be found unconstitutional.

If the Supreme Court fails to reject juvenile sentences without parole, the Michigan legislature should be ready with its own legislation to save young people from a life behind bars without any hope of redemption.

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