Former chief judges publish guest column pleading the Michigan Legislature to give juvenile lifers a 2nd chance

Detroit Free Press

August 7th, 2014

Detroit Free PressIn 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that giving a mandatory life without parole sentence to a teen violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Michigan Legislature responded by removing the mandatory nature of the sentence and returning the role of individualized sentencing review to the judge in the courtroom. At the time, the Legislature noted that they would not address the issue for those who were already sentenced to mandatory life before the Miller ruling because the Michigan Supreme Court had taken up the issue. We were among a group of 110 former judges and prosecutors who submitted an amicus brief asking the Michigan Supreme Court to apply the sentencing review required by the Miller ruling to those sentenced as youth to mandatory life without parole.

Now that the state Supreme Court decided not to apply Miller retroactively, it’s time for the Legislature to finish its work. If the Legislature recognized that mandatory life without parole as applied to youth violates the Eighth Amendment going forward, then it’s only logical that lawmakers address the unconstitutionality of the same sentence for those youth who were sentenced before the Miller ruling. We already have a template to apply the law retroactively in our state’s recent history.

In 1998, then-Gov. John Engler signed measures reforming the so-called 650-Lifer law that required a mandatory sentence of life without parole for anyone convicted of possessing or delivering more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. Engler didn’t just eliminate the mandatory sentence for those yet to be convicted, he made that change retroactive to the hundreds of offenders sentenced under the law, allowing parole eligibility.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder can do the same thing with the mandatory life without parole sentence for youth and require hearings to allow youth sentenced before the Miller decision a chance to show that they have been rehabilitated and are not a threat to society. This doesn’t guarantee parole; it simply applies the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to everyone who received this constitutionally defective sentence.

Correcting the inequity is not only the fair thing to do, given that this sentence has been ruled unconstitutional, it would also shave unnecessary expenses from the bloated corrections budget, because those who have been rehabilitated would no longer be a state responsibility. More than half of the 350 people serving mandatory life for crimes committed when they were kids have already served 20 years or more and are at an age at which their health needs will require increased medical care (and dollars) from the state.

If Michigan wants to attract businesses, young people and innovation to drive our economy, we have to lead other states, not lag behind them. The Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency just issued a report, Youth Behind Bars, which describes Michigan’s outdated approaches that do not make the public any safer.

As former chief judges, we recognize that our government must be vigilant about eliminating unconstitutional punishments and maintaining public safety. Our justice system and public safety do not benefit from perpetuating ineffective, outdated approaches to the punishment of youth. Certainly, the pocketbooks of taxpayers aren’t benefited either. We urge the Legislature to act.

This guest column is signed by the following retired chief judges: Jack Arnold, Gratiot County; Alfred Butzbaugh, Berrien County; George Corsiglia, Allegan County; William J. Giovan, Wayne County; Janet Haynes, Kent County; Peter Houk, Ingham County; Richard Kaufman, , Wayne County; Eugene Moore, Oakland County; Dalton A. Roberson, Wayne County, and Edward Sosnick , Oakland County.