Michigan has more juvenile lifers — people between age 14 and 17 who are sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity for parole — than every state except Pennsylvania. With 358 people currently serving life sentences who were convicted as juveniles, this is not a ranking the state should be eager to maintain. While some of these young people committed heinous crimes, some were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Michigan lawmakers must re-evaluate the policy of life sentences for juveniles because some of these youth may deserve a second chance.
Some of the charges that can result in a life sentence include first-degree murder and second-degree murder. A life sentence is unreasonable for some youth who receive these charges. This was the case for Keith Maxey, who at age 16 fled the scene of an attempted drug theft in 2007 in which another person was killed. Maxey was unarmed and was shot during the incident, but he was still charged with felony murder and sentenced to life in prison. He is currently involved in a federal lawsuit against the state to overturn the life sentence.
The purpose of the penitentiary system is not to keep criminals locked up forever but to provide an opportunity to rehabilitate them back into society. Criminals who enter the system as youth are more likely to go through this process successfully. A person undergoes major psychological and personal changes from adolescence to adulthood, and young criminals are no exception. These individuals should be re-evaluated to see if they have changed from the time they committed their crime.
The state should grant convicted juveniles a second chance at a free life if the state feels they are genuinely remorseful. Teenagers who are convicted of serious crimes should still face substantial jail time, but allowing them to be sentenced as adults to lifetime imprisonment without parole is unjust. Michigan should not exclusively treat juveniles as adults in murder convictions, but should evaluate crimes committed by youth on a case-by-case basis.
Michigan should also provide services to help imprisoned juveniles learn to understand the impact of their crimes and what led to the decisions they made. Offering counseling and mental health services could help with this rehabilitation process. Trained mental health professionals should routinely monitor a juvenile’s mental health.
Locking up juveniles for the duration of their lives is also an extreme financial burden for Michigan citizens. Supporting juvenile lifers costs Michigan residents more than $10 million each year. Taxpayers must foot the bill for food, clothing and medical care for every prisoner. The longer a juvenile is imprisoned, the more expensive it becomes for taxpayers.
There are terrible crimes committed by young people that are unforgivable and deserving of a life sentence. But as is the case with Maxey’s conviction, this is not always the circumstance. Michigan needs to reconsider its current treatment of juvenile lifer convictions and make sure it gives all criminals fair treatment under the law.