Tag Archive for Michigan

Michigan Judge, Following 2012 U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Urges State Consider Parole for Prisoners Given Life Sentences for Crimes Committed as Juveniles


Prison doors

Prison doors (Photo credit: rytc)

Under an order federal Judge John Corbett O’Meara issued in late November 2013, Michigan must consider paroling 350 prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. This complies with a June 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sentencing schemes that fail to account for a young person’s potential for character and cognitive development are a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The justices declared that juveniles handed life sentences are entitled to the possibility of parole.
Judge O’Meara said that by Jan. 31, 2014, the state must 1) create an administrative structure to determine which “juvenile lifers” deserve parole, 2) inform juvenile lifers who’ve been behind bars for at least 10 years that their eligibility for parole will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner, 3) schedule proceedings, including public hearings, for eligible prisoners applying for parole, 4) ensure the Parole Board explains its decision in each case and that there will be no vetoes (of parole) by the sentencing judge or anyone else.

Judge O’Meara also ruled:

As of the date this process begins, no prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile will be deprived of any educational or training program which is otherwise available to the general prison population.

Lansing lawmakers are considering legislation to change state sentencing guidelines for juvenile lifers. A bill approved unanimously by the Senate in October would allow some minors convicted of murder to avoid life sentences, but it wouldn’t apply to those currently behind bars. A House bill would permit parole consideration retroactively for juvenile lifers.
The Sentencing Project

recently released a report and national survey results on Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP). It noted that United States stands alone worldwide in imposing life sentences without parole on juveniles, and that today a record number of people are serving such sentences.

Many of us erroneously believe that sentences of life without parole translate to a handful of years in prison followed by inevitable release. In reality, such a sentence usually means that the individual will die in prison.

The majority of JLWOP sentences are imposed in states in which judges are obligated to sentence individuals without consideration of any factors relating to a juvenile’s age or life circumstances. Pennsylvania, which has the most juvenile lifers, requires that youth of any age charged with homicide be tried in adult court and, upon conviction, be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

This first-ever national survey of juvenile lifers deals with their life experiences prior to their conviction, as well as descriptions of their lives while incarcerated. The findings are sobering, and should motivate policy discussion about this extreme punishment.

Most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by systems that are intended to protect children. Survey findings from 1,579 individuals around the country serving these sentences demonstrate high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage. There are also extreme racial disparities. Sentences are frequently imposed without judicial discretion and utilize counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation.

Seventy-nine percent of juvenile lifers reported witnessing violence in their homes; 54.1 percent witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods; 46.9 percent experienced physical abuse, including 79.5 percent of girls; 31.5 percent of juvenile lifers were raised in public housing; 17.9 percent were not living with a close adult relative just before their incarceration and some reported being homeless, living with friends or being housed in a detention facility, treatment center or group home.

Juvenile lifers faced significant educational challenges: two in five had been enrolled in special education classes, only 46.6 percent had been attending school at the time of their offense and 84.4 percent had been suspended or expelled from school at some point.

The survey found that often corrections policies curtail efforts at rehabilitation. Most (61.9 percent) juvenile lifers are not engaged in programming in prison, but this is usually not due to lack of interest, but because of state or prison policies. Many juvenile lifers are engaged in constructive change during their imprisonment when they are permitted the opportunity to do so. Two-thirds have attained a high school diploma or GED.

Despite long distances from home and family, many juvenile lifers attempt to maintain close ties with loved ones through phone calls, letters and visits. As years in prison pass, lifers are charged with significantly fewer disciplinary actions.

Today, most states have enacted provisions for transferring some youth out of juvenile courts and trying them in adult courts. These situations expanded greatly in the past 20 years. Part of the reason for the rise in sentencing youth to life in prison was the upswing in crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled in large part by crack cocaine and easy access to illegal guns. By 1993, the rate of juvenile homicides had tripled from 1983.

However, homicide rates among juveniles dropped 74 percent from 1993 to 2008. But fueled by media reports of celebrated cases and resulting public fears, catch phrases such as “adult crime, adult time” were popularized. Policymakers responded with a frenzy of tough laws that disregarded developmental differences between youth and adults, and instead focused exclusively on the crime. State legislatures passed laws that eased the way for young people to be transferred to and tried in adult courts. By the mid-1990s, every state had passed laws that either allowed or mandated that teenagers be tried as adults under certain circumstances. So there was a steep rise in the number of teens who were sentenced to life without parole during the mid-1990s.

Based on survey results from 49 states (not Louisiana), respondents have been in prison an average of 15 years; 359 of them for least 21 years and one juvenile offender has already served 49 years in prison. Sixty percent are black and 14.3 percent are Latino.

Survey respondents reported childhoods that were marked by frequent exposure to domestic and community-level violence, problems in school, engagement with delinquent peers and familial incarceration. While an estimated one in 16 young people in the general public experiences sexual abuse, it’s one in five among the JLWOP respondents.

Survey respondents were over six times more likely to report having witnessed family violence than other youths did. Sixty-two percent perceived their neighborhood to be unsafe and more than two-thirds saw drugs sold openly where they lived. More than 54 percent of juvenile lifers witnessed acts of violence on at least a weekly basis. More than a quarter of them have had a parent in prison and 59.1 percent had a close relative in prison.

Teenagers housed with adult prisoners face a heightened risk of suicide, sexual assault and physical assault. The Sentencing Project Report suggests these solutions: Eliminate JLWOP sentences, allow and encourage these Inmates to engage in rehabilitation programming, address racial disparities and house youth in age-appropriate settings, pre-trial and post-conviction.


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Decline in Number of Youths in Secure Detention and Residential Placement in 44 States is Reducing Cost and Recidivism

Black Down Arrow

Black Down Arrow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

National data show that 44 states have reduced the number of youth in residential placement and secure detention and are increasing community-based programs because they cost less, decrease reoffending and improve youth and family well-being.

A study authored by Kristen Staley and Michelle Weemhof, staffers at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), titled There’s No Place Like Home: Making the Case for Wise Investment in Juvenile Justice, declares:

Within the past decade, the state has transformed its juvenile justice system away from harsh, punitive treatment into one celebrated for innovation and effectiveness. Large, overcrowded public institutions have closed, and the responsibility of treating and placing delinquent youth was shifted away from the Michigan Department of Human Services and put onto the counties—a change most states are striving to achieve.

Michigan is among the states experiencing a decline in out-of-home placement, the report said. The state’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that, at its peak in 1997, Michigan sent 3,711 youth in residential placement, but as of 2011, the federal estimate hovered near 2,000 youth in placement

Michigan counties are focusing more on community-based options, like electronic monitoring and family therapies that treat youth while they stay at home.

Although the signs of progress are encouraging, the reconstruction of Michigan’s juvenile justice system is far from complete. Little statewide infrastructure exists to support counties as they implement and sustain their community-based models.

This systemic gap, coupled with Michigan’s recent economic downturn and drastic budget cuts, has begun to dismantle recent successes. Years of progressive reform are threatened, costs are driving up, and youth, their families and communities face increased risks if the system fails, the researchers say.

Youth treated with punitive, non-therapeutic programs are 70 to 80% more likely to be rearrested, and 60% of youth served out-of-home return to custody within three years of release.

In Michigan, community-based program costs range from $10 to $65 per day per youth, whereas out-of-home placement costs from $150 to $500 per day per youth.

Over the past three years, increased use of community-based programs, such as in Oakland County—has saved Michigan $33 million. Prioritizing community-based services can save an estimated $1.7 million to $2.3 million per child.

The study learned that 86% of families with youth in the juvenile justice system want to be more involved with their child’s treatment, but most experience barriers to participating when their children are placed out-of-home.

The Oakland County Youth Assistance group, which runs 26 county programs, conducted a study that found that 92% of its kids didn’t recidivate.

The OCYA’s chief, Mary Schusterbauer, found that despite county and local budget cuts:

The earlier you intervene, the better. Sometimes a shoplifter is not just a shoplifter, for example. Our whole mission is keeping kids out of the court system and into their own homes.

In neighboring Wayne County, which adopted the more localized system of juvenile justice and care in 2000, the MCCD study showed recidivism rates dropped from 56% in 1998 to 17.5% in 2012. The successes were also shown in other counties too, according to the study. The delinquency rate decreased 77% from 1998 to 2012 in Midland County and 38.5% in reoffense rates in Berrien County.

There are similar results in New York City, which has a population of more than 8 million, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year signed into law a program called Close to Home, aimed at keeping kids closer to their families instead of sending them to upstate detention facilities.

Related articles

The Michigan Youth Reentry Model


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Michigan’s Juvenile Lifers

Prison corridor with cellsOnly 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