Only Pennsylvania has more juveniles serving life sentences than Michigan. Both states may be experiencing some change in the near future.
You see, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear two cases that challenge the idea of life sentences for juveniles. The basis of the argument is that it is cruel and unusual punishment to incarcerate a juvenile for life. The two cases involve a pair of 14 year-olds, one in Alabama and Arkansas.
If that challenge is upheld it will mean major changes for Michigan on many levels. For one thing it’s a big part of the economy, Michigan’s 359 juvenile lifers cost a whopping $10 million a year to house.
First let’s have a little background.
In 1988, as a response to the astounding spike in juvenile violence across the U.S., the Michigan legislature made is easier to try 15 and 16 year olds as adults. Then in 1996 they made is easier to charge 14 year olds as well under their “adult crime, adult crime” mandate. It was part of a national trend towards harsher sentencing for under age offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics the number of juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons between 1983 and 1998 more than tripled in the U.S.
Since then some backtracking has been done, but there is a long way yet to go. John Barnes of MLive notes that the Supreme Court may be hearing these cases with an eye toward extending the reach of two of their earlier rulings:
In 2005, the court ruled minors 17 and younger could not be given the death penalty.
In 2010, the court extended protections, ruling a minor could not be sentenced to life without parole in non-homicide cases.
In both cases, the majority of justices ruled juveniles’ mental abilities are lesser developed than adults, and sentencing them as such violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The new cases would move the bar even further, banning mandatory life involving juvenile homicides, including when the juvenile was present at a crime, but did not commit the actual killing. About one-third of Michigan juvenile lifers fall in that category.
It is a hard debate, one fraught with emotion and thorny to navigate. In many ways though, it is the same debate we so often have: rehabilitation vs. incarceration. Yes, there are incorigibles who belong behind bars. There are also many cases where the childlike mind does not have the capacity to truly realize consequences. It is once more a question of how useful it is to try a child as an adult.
Even supporters of the original harsher penalties are beginning to doubt their efficacy. Angela Whittrock brings us one from MLive‘s ongoing series about this issue:
Supporters of the initial reforms have mixed views on whether sending juveniles to prison for life has been effective.
Leland, a Detroit Democrat, thinks he and his colleagues made a mistake. He points to the growing prison population, which tripled from 1980 to more than 45,000 in 2009, and the Department of Corrections budget, which grew from $193 million in fiscal 1980 to $1.94 billion this year.
Even factoring in inflation, that’s nearly a fourfold increase.
‘Now, 25 years later, I think locking youthful offenders up for life is ridiculous,’ Leland said. ‘Life in prison should be reserved for Hitler.’
This is just one of many aspects of our juvenile justice system that are flawed or broken. All deserve the utmost scrutiny lest we squander our children’s futures, and society’s as well.
For an array of further reading MLive has been doing an extensive series on the subject.
Image Source: Time Pearce on Flickr, used under it’s Creative Commons license