Sentencing practices need a fresh approach

By Fred M. Mester
Ret. Oakland County Circuit Judge

Until 40 years ago, our system of criminal jurisprudence has been rooted in the idea that, upon a finding of guilt, each defendant is to be treated as an individual.
Demonstrative of this idea is the manner in which a sentencing judgment has historically been given. The judge, in the hopes of coming to a just and informed sentencing decision, would consider not only the nature of the crime committed, but also relevant factors unique to the defendant, such as his or her age, experience, and potential for rehabilitation.

Prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s, this type of sentencing practice was predicated upon the idea that harsh mandatory sentences served no valid purpose and that the primary purpose of imprisonment was not to punish prisoners, but to rehabilitate them. In accordance with this idea, it was believed that an offender’s liberty should be insulated as much as possible from punitive public attitudes. As we moved through the 1970s and 1980s, this all began to change as prosecutor waivers, mandatory sentences, and sentencing guidelines became the foundation of much of our sentencing practices.

As a result of this, our sentencing practices have undergone significant changes, especially with respect to a judge’s exercise of discretion in sentencing. A judge’s opportunity to evaluate each defendant as an individual has been significantly limited, as in many instances, the sentencing is set by those in the legislature – those who know nothing of the actions that precede each crime or the relevant factors unique to each criminal defendant. One such instance of this dealt with the sentence of life without parole in felony murder cases, irrespective of the age of the defendants charged with this crime.

Approximately 20 years ago, one such felony murder case came before me.

At the time of the crime, Jennifer Pruitt was 16 years of age. After dropping out of school in the sixth grade, Pruitt was thrown out into the streets by her parents.
While on the street, Pruitt struck up a friendship with 24-year old Donnell Miracle. Donnell concocted a plan in which both she and Jennifer would steal money from 75-year-old Elmer, a man who had befriended many of the young people in the neighborhood. Donnell was to distract Elmer while Jennifer went to find and steal the money Elmer had stashed away. All went as planned until Jennifer, upon returning from stealing the money, encountered Donnell stabbing Elmer with a kitchen knife. Jennifer ran next door and notified the occupants of what had just happened. The prosecution got a waiver to have Jennifer tried as an adult for felony murder. She was found guilty by a jury in my courtroom. In sentencing her as an adult, I had no choice but to sentence her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Such a sentence ignored the well-known fact that a child’s character is not as well formed as that of an adult; children have a lack of maturity, undeveloped brain functions and a limited sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and needless risk taking. They have limited control over their own environments and they lack the ability to extricate themselves from the environments that surround them. Furthermore, children are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, as was Jennifer. That is why we have limited by age those who wish to drive an automobile, drink alcohol, vote, etc. If we consider age to be a factor in these instances, then why should individual factors such as age not also be a factor in sentencing?

In the recent decision of Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court recognized these well-known facts when it found that sentencing a juvenile like Jennifer to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. More specifically, the Supreme Court expressly explained that a mandatory life without parole sentence prevents the courts from “taking into account the family and home environment” that surrounds the child and from which one cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional the family is. It neglects the circumstances of the offense and the person, the defendant. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not address the retroactivity of its decision. Accordingly, Jennifer and those like her will remain in prison for the rest of their lives unless the court or the legislature acts to address the retroactivity of the Miller decision.

Let me bring you up to date with Jennifer – she has changed; she is grown up and matured in prison. She finished her schooling and tutors new prisoners in reading and writing. The administration of the prison has asked her to do suicide watches over her fellow prisoners. She has been rehabilitated and should have an opportunity to live free and become a contributing member of our society.

That is why Thomas Cramer, former president of the State Bar of Michigan, and I, along with many retired judges and former prosecutors in Michigan, came together to encourage the Michigan Supreme Court and the State Legislature to make the Miller decision retroactive. It is with great hope that we will be able to give Jennifer and those like her, a second chance in life.

From a theological standpoint, a second chance in life is a prevalent theme among the three major religions of the world – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Throug­out the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are confronted with figures who had committed horrible crimes in their past lives, but because God gave them a second chance, they became great men who ended up changing the world. These juveniles, if given the chance, may be able to change the world in a similar fashion.

But how is it that we can balance this need to give child offenders a second chance with the desire to bring about justice for their victims?

Our focus needs to be on guiding the offender to repentance, redemption, and to affirmatively become a contributor to society. We need to realize that we cannot do this with our current prison system. Our prisons are not the best institutions for rehabilitation; they are the best institutions for the advancement of criminality. Thus, a judge must strive to give a sentence appropriate to the crime but also take into account a multitude of factors, including a person’s life circumstances. A good judge does not have a linear sentencing philosophy; judges sentence people not robots, and every case is presented with its own unique facts and circumstances.
Furthermore, we, as a society, must examine, unscramble, and address the technological, medical, scientific, and moral questions in relation to how we define the offender and what we are to do about the offender. In doing so, we should be able to detect specific kinds of problems to which different and better kinds of problem-solving methods, such as the Academies of 2nd Chance or the Wolverine Academy, can be applied.

We must remember that it is only when we stop letting the “War on Crime” degenerate into the “War on Criminals” that we will be able to make significant inroads into the problem of crime. 

(The above remarks were delivered by Judge Mester at a meeting of the Judicial Arm of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. last year. Also joining Judge Mester in making presentations was Congressman John Conyers Jr., of the 13th District, and Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney, who has represented the ACLU and has been a leader in the legal challenge to juveniles serving life sentences without the opportunity for parole.)