The ACLU of Michigan is urging the Michigan Senate to adopt a package of bills passed by the Michigan House last week that would prohibit the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole.
The ACLU is asking that people send email letters to their state senators telling them to pass the bill.
In Michigan, there are currently 300 individuals serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as children. Michigan’s laws are some of the harshest in the country. While 43 other states have similar laws, Michigan is one five states that account for two-thirds of youth imprisoned under these laws. Judges and juries in Michigan are given little leeway in sentencing. For example, laws require sentencing juveniles convicted of “felony murder” to be sentenced to life without parole even if they did not commit the crime and were merely present when someone was murdered.
The ACLU further argues that these mandatory sentencing laws are another example of institutionalized racism in the US, as 69% of people receiving these sentences are African-Americans although African-Americans make up only 15% of Michigan’s population.
* Each year in Michigan, children as young as thirteen are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without opportunity for parole. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, the United States allows children to be treated and punished the same as adults. Children are increasingly excluded from the protection of juvenile courts based on the nature of the offense, without any consideration of age, maturity or culpability of the child, and without taking steps to ensure their understanding of the legal system under which they are prosecuted.
* Life sentences without possibility of parole have been renounced internationally as a violation of human rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which specifically forbids sentences of life imprisonment for children under the age of eighteen. The United States stands alone in rejecting this article of the Convention and in the implementation of this sentence on adolescents convicted of crimes.
* Even more disheartening, we can recognize early signs of juvenile delinquency, but we do very little to stop the inevitable streamlining of troubled youth in to prisons. We are failing our children before we even sentence them to life without parole by simply denying them their right to an education. Children who are forced out of the education system by suspensions, expulsions or because of learning disabilities are more likely to commit crimes. Over 70% of juveniles serving life without parole in Michigan were not attending school at the time of their crime. When they were attending school the majority of juvenile offenders reported that they were either enrolled in special education courses or experienced learning difficulties, but were not given the special help they needed it be successful.
* Michigan now has the second highest percentage of juveniles serving life without parole–Louisiana has the highest. There are currently more than 308 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences. The automatic, mandatory and permanent sentencing laws leave no room to reasonably assess the juvenile’s growth or maturity or to individually assess the need for continued incarceration.
* Passage of juvenile life reform legislation does not guarantee release. It only provides an opportunity for a parole board to evaluate whether the individual, now grown and matured, is a current threat to public safety. This legislation allows for a fair evaluation of those sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed when they were a minor. Further, the cost of incarcerating a juvenile for life–without ever evaluating whether they are truly a continued risk to society is over $1 million dollars per child.
In 2004, the ACLU of Michigan released a report on juveniles receiving life sentences.
Additionally, the harsh sentences handed out to juvenile offenders by the states have also drawn the attention of the United Nations. The United States is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would prohibit these mandatory sentences.