Safe & Just Michigan presents:
Life Beyond Life
The world agrees that children cannot be held to the same standard of responsibility as adults. A global consensus exists around the need for special protections for youth in the criminal justice system – yet the United States – and Michigan in particular – remains a shameful outlier in continuing to sentence youth to die in prison.
Stories of Life Beyond Life
Alex Ayala grew up as a “military brat” — a child of a father in the military who was stationed at different bases around the world. After spending the first several years of his life in Puerto Rico, where his family was from, Alex joined his father in two deployments in Germany and one in Kentucky before arriving in Michigan around the time he turned 16 years old.
Moving around so often brought challenges for Alex. Looking back, he realizes that the frequent moves and losing friendships left him feeling insecure and craving acceptance from his peers. That left him vulnerable to falling in with the wrong crowd.
“When you do not accept your own self or who you are, you can get lost in other people,” he says.
A few months after arriving in Michigan, his newfound friends asked him to join them as they planned to rob a gas station. Since he was legally considered a child, his oldest friend told Alex and another friend his age to enter the store and rob it — that way, if they were caught, they would face a lighter punishment. Alex was given a gun, but he was nervous during the robbery and inadvertently fired it, hitting the gas station attendant, who later died.
Alex soon learned that juveniles can be charged, convicted and sentenced as adults — which his judge decided to do. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of ever going home. Because he was still so young, however, it took Alex another five years to comprehend what a life without parole sentence truly meant.
Instead of giving in to despair, however, Alex chose a different path. He decided to educate himself — and others. He taught Spanish classes and bible studies. He reasoned that even if he couldn’t go home, perhaps he could reach others who would, and make sure they never came back to prison. And in the back of his mind, he never gave up hope that someone might realize he deserved a second chance, too.
His hopes were realized after the U.S. Supreme Court began rethinking juvenile life without parole sentencing in 2012. A series of rulings first made mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional, then applied that decision retroactively. Alex won a resentencing hearing and came home in 2019.
Since then, he has been working, spending time with family, traveling, mentoring and is active in his church. Unlike the teenager he used to be, he now feels secure in who he is. “One thing I do know is that I am Alex Ayala,” he says.
Edward Sanders prefers to go by “Barakah,” a name that means blessings. He feels blessed even though he spent 40 years in prison for driving the car a friend fired a gun from, resulting in another person’s death. As one of Michigan’s youths sentenced to life without parole, a judge told him that he deserved to die in prison. But Barakah never agreed, and he never gave up hope that one day, he’d be free again.
Barakah grew up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s. His neighborhood was dotted with notable people — he was friends with Aretha Franklin’s sons. In 1967, the Detroit Uprising took place on his doorstep, giving him a front-row seat to the violence and despair that can arise from inequality. As a teen, he became a leader of a street gang.
One night in 1976, he and his friends had a disagreement with another man as they drove past him. Barakah was the driver of the car. A passenger inside the car shot and killed the man. Barakah was arrested as an accessory and charged with felony murder, a charge that netted him a juvenile life without parole sentence, even though he wasn’t the one to shoot the gun.
In prison, Barakah took classes and earned a college degree. Then, he taught others. He became a leader and worked with organizations like the ACLU to end juvenile life without parole sentencing. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that these sentences could no longer be mandatory, he said he felt relief — even though the ruling didn’t immediately apply to him. It took a second Supreme Court ruling in 2016, which made the earlier ruling retroactive, to pave the way for Barakah to come home.
Since returning home in 2017, Barakah has earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan and has worked for the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office in the Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit. He sits on the Detroit Justice Center’s board of directors and aspires to go to law school.
“Learn to forgive even on your worst day,” Barakah urges.
Daniel Jones left a large imprint on our lives. Sentenced to prison for life without parole at 17 for a killing he didn’t intend to commit, a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings gave him a second chance in 2019. In the three years he had as a free adult, he worked ceaselessly to register voters, reform the criminal justice system, bring comfort to people in distress, rehabilitate Detroit housing and even become a father for the first time. In his own words, he was a work in progress and a healer.
Daniel said he felt loved and secure in his family until his parents divorced when he was seven. Then, his mother became involved with a man who was addicted to drugs and who stole household items — and even their car — to feed his habit. It fueled an anger in Daniel that he didn’t know how to handle, so he avoided home. On the streets, he found kinship in a gang, not realizing that they didn’t have his best interests at heart.
One night, his friends picked him up with the intent to commit a robbery. Daniel didn’t even know how to fire the shotgun in the backseat — his friends taught him while they drove around town. Daniel panicked during the robbery and shot the weapon without aiming it. It tragically hit one of the people they were robbing, and the man died.
Because of his age, Daniel’s case could have been tried as an adult or a juvenile. The judge handling the case decided that Daniel was “incorrigible” and sentenced him to life without parole. In prison, Daniel took classes, read books on philosophy and psychology, and came to terms with the factors that led him to prison. He forgave and reconciled with his stepfather and found peace.
By the time the U.S. Supreme Court began rolling back laws on juvenile life without parole sentencing in 2012, Daniel had defied his sentencing judge by doing what he said was impossible: changing.
“I changed not because of prison,” Daniel says, “but in spite of it.”
Daniel came home in March 2019 and quickly won friends and supporters with his warm, genuine smile, his compassion and his unwavering dedication to criminal justice reform. He worked with organizations such as the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration, the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program and the National Life Without Parole Leadership Council. He also facilitated Safe & Just Michigan’s weekly support group for family members of incarcerated people.
A bullet ended Daniel’s life in November 2022, four months after he was interviewed for this video. The tragedy of his loss is compounded by the knowledge that Daniel himself would have given everything to help the person who shot him understand the futility of violence.
At 17, Jamil Allen-Bey couldn’t read the important papers before him — papers that would change his life. Education hadn’t been an emphasis in his young life, which had been full of violence and tragedy. His mother had been incarcerated for assault, and his aunt had been killed by her husband. Now, Jamil was about to come before a judge.
Besides the proceedings in the courtroom, there were stacks of paperwork to go through. Jamil, who had dropped out of school after being diagnosed with a learning disability in ninth grade, couldn’t understand what was put before him — papers that said that even though he was still a teenager, he faced the possibility of being sent to prison for the rest of his life with no chance of ever coming home.
He faced trial because an attempt to help his family had gone tragically wrong. An uncle asked him to help a cousin who was being bullied by a gang member. Jamil had intended to fire a warning shot over the head of his cousin’s bully, but the man was getting up from a sitting position just as the gun was fired. As a result, Jamil had shot and killed him.
Jamil was ultimately convicted and sentenced to live out the rest of his life in prison. But it took several more years for him to truly understand that he was meant to die in prison, too.
Instead of giving up, Jamil became inspired by a mentor he found in prison and decided to learn to read. He earned his GED and went on to read stories of enslaved people and others who had obtained freedom. He realized education was key to freedom, so he doubled down and challenged himself to learn more. He wanted to learn why he made the choices he did and how he could improve himself.
Key to his transformation, Jamil decided he had to reparent himself — to give himself the nurturing he didn’t get as a child.
Once the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible for people sentenced to juvenile parole to be resentenced, Jamil came home in 2018. Today, he works at a warming center for people experiencing homelessness in Detroit.
“I believe our purpose here on this earth is to serve and to make life better for the generation to come,” Jamil says.
When Machelle lost her mother as a pre-teen, she didn’t just lose a parent. She also lost her provider and protector.
“I had a good childhood when she was living,” Machelle said. “It changed when she left.”
Machelle’s father struggled with addiction and was not equipped to care for her or her many siblings. A child not old enough to care for herself, Machelle promised her mother to look after her siblings the best she could.
After her mother’s passing, Machelle bounced around between foster homes and living with family. In the process, she endued cycles of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
Eventually, Machelle began staying with an abusive boyfriend and became dependent on him. One day, her boyfriend and his brother planned a robbery and gave Machelle an impossible choice: She could help them, or they would kill her younger brother. Machelle remembered the promise she made to her mother and agreed to assist the pair. They gave her a gun and told her to ask strangers for a ride. Her boyfriend and his brother would follow the car that picked up Machelle to commit the robbery.
A woman agreed to give Machelle a ride, but Machelle couldn’t follow through. Machelle revealed the robbery plot and tried to hand the gun to the woman. But Machelle had never handled a gun before, and in her panicked state, she accidentally discharged the weapon. The bullet went through the woman’s neck, killing her.
Machelle received a life sentence without the possibility for parole for a mistake she made as a child.
Machelle never gave up hope she would be free again and following a Supreme Court ruling that ordered life sentences given to juveniles be reviewed, Machelle was released in 2018. Machelle was released to a whole new world with a whole new set of challenges that she is still learning to navigate.
“Because I have a felony, I couldn’t even scoop ice cream,” she said.
But Machelle has a “guardian angel” who is helping with her reentry. An alternate juror for her case was moved by her story and kept in touch during her prison stay. She and her husband have helped her find housing and stability since her release.
This allows Machelle to follow her passion and help adolescents who find themselves in situations similar to her own. She regularly talks to kids at risk of heading down the wrong path and young women who have been abused.
“I feel like that’s what I’m here to do, is pull youth, even grown people out of abusive relationships,” she said. “Let them know where it led me because I didn’t have guidance.”
Juvenile Life Without Parole
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. The practice, known as juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), is prohibited under numerous international laws including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet twenty-five U.S. states still permit this sentence – and Michigan houses the second largest population of people serving juvenile life without parole in the nation.
In four decisions – Roper v. Simmons (2005), Graham v. Florida (2010), Miller v. Alabama (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) – the Supreme Court of the United States established and upheld the fact that “children are constitutionally different from adults” in their level of culpability and capacity for change. Ruling it morally and constitutionally wrong to equate offenses committed by emotionally undeveloped youth with crimes carried out by adults.
While these decisions did away with JLWOP as a mandatory minimum, the sentence remains discretionarily legal in the “rare” case that a child is beyond all hope of redemption. Twenty-five states and D.C. have since banned the practice, seven states have no one serving life-without parole sentenced as a juvenile, and many of the remaining states quickly resentenced those that were. Michigan, however, has resisted the world and the highest court in the land’s rulings, claiming that 55 percent of its more than 350 people sentenced under the age of 18 to life without parole are irredeemable.
Research shows that adolescents have not fully developed the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and understanding consequences – it’s the reason we don’t let youth drive, make decisions related to their medical care, vote, or sign contracts. They’re not capable of navigating the legal system and often receive harsher punishments than their adult codefendants.
These same developmental differences make youth uniquely capable of rehabilitation.
Locking up a child and throwing away the key is unjust as they’re fundamentally incapable of the same level of guilt as an adult, not deterred by harsher punishments because of their inability to connect actions to consequences, denied any chance at rehabilitation, and the practice doesn’t make communities safer – data shows nearly all youth will age out of crime.
Not just inhumane, t’s incredibly expensive. The 2022 MI Supreme Court decision extending the ban on mandatory JLWOP to individuals under the age of 19 – brings our state’s total number of youth sentenced under this scheme to nearly 700 people. If nothing changes, Michigan will spend an estimated $2.04 billion incarcerating just this population alone – this population of youth that will statistically age out of crime. Not only is incarceration expensive, but Michigan pays for both sides of their unnecessarily complicated resentencing process, costing taxpayers an average $2 million per year.
The consensus is clear, sentencing children to life without parole is cruel, unjust, and unnecessary. It is time Michigan joined the rest of the world in giving youth a second chance.
Facts and Shareables
Did you know?
- 25 states and DC have banned juvenile life without possibility of parole.
- 7 other states currently have no one serving JLWOP sentences.
- Michigan houses the nation’s second largest population of individuals serving life without parole sentenced as youth. It is the leader in individuals serving life without parole per capita.
- Decades of research support the conclusion that youth are less capable than adults in impulse control, resisting outside influence or peer pressure, and understanding the consequences of their actions; and that are uniquely capable of rehabilitation.
- African American juvenile offenders are sentenced to JLWOP at almost twice the rate of white juvenile offenders per homicide arrest.
- In Wayne County, Black youth represent 90% of juveniles that receive life without parole sentences while only accounting for 41% of the overall population.
- Clear geographic disparities in JLWOP sentencing exist within Michigan. Oakland, Calhoun, Saginaw, and Kent Counties offer lessor sentences to youth at significantly lower rates than the state average. Wayne and Oakland Counties account for 9% of all JLWOP sentences in the nation.
- Juveniles reject plea offers at much higher rates than adults; therefore adults receive lessor sentences for comparable crimes. Juveniles are less equipped to negotiate plea offers because of their immaturity, inexperience, and failure to realize the value of a plea deal.
- Race seriously affects the plea bargaining process for adolescents. Youth accused of a homicide offense where the victim was white were 22% less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was a person of color.
Help End this Unnecessary Practice NOW!
In 2022, legislation was introduced in Michigan to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. The work to pass that proposal will continue into the 2023 legislative session.
Share Life Beyond Life storyteller sessions, facts, and pre-made graphics on your personal and business social media pages. Help send the message to Michigan lawmakers that sentencing children to die in prison is not only a cruel and outdated practice, but a waste of taxpayer funds as it does nothing to make communities safer.
#EndJLWOP #LifeBeyondLife @safeandjustmi
“There is a misconception that Miller v. Alabama ended juvenile life without parole for good, but it did not. States like Michigan can still sentence children to death by incarceration.” | Ronnie Waters, Safe & Just Michigan Community Engagement Specialist, sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile, released in 2020 after a resentencing hearing.
“We understand the severity of our actions, we also understand who we are as people. We are children. We have a lot of trauma we’re dealing with and we just don’t know how to process it. That does not excuse or justify any behavior but should mitigate at sentencing.” | Brandon Harrington, advocate, commercial truck driver, paralegal, and father, sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile, released in 2021 after a resentencing hearing
Help Michigan join 32 other states and D.C. in ending the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole!