Report highlights inequities

Second Chances 4 Youth highlights disadvantages and racial disparities of plea bargaining for Michigan youth

Legal advocates, clergy and family members of individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole for crimes they committed as children joined Second Chances 4 Youth to release a report documenting the systemic disadvantages facing juveniles in the adult criminal justice system. "Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth," was released May 15 in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan at a news conference at Lansing's St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

"As parents, teachers and older siblings, we inherently understand that kids are fundamentally different than adults," said Deborah LaBelle, the principal author of the report. "They are impulsive, inexperienced, vulnerable to mistreatment, and are not able to easily escape or cope with abuse and other trauma. While there is no denying that youth must be held accountable for actions, as a state, we can do better than sentencing them to die in prison."

To date, 371 young people have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Michigan. This includes more than 100 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole who were present or committed a felony when a homicide was committed by someone else.

"We are compounding the tragedy of serious crime by virtually throwing away the lives of these children," said Reverend Joe Summers of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, "The idea that youth can never change flies in the face of all that we know and is against any sense of moral redemption."

The 38-page report explores the fiscal and human costs of juvenile life without parole sentences and the disproportionate punishments and documented racial disparities found in the plea bargaining process for youth accused of certain crimes. The findings rely on publicly available data produced by the Michigan Department of Corrections and survey responses from individuals originally charged with first-degree homicide in Michigan for crimes committed as youth since 1975.

Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole. In the last five years, there has been a downward trend in imposing such sentences across the nation. Michigan is one of only six states deviating from this national movement. Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger.

The report was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation--Working with Visionaries on the Frontlines of Social Change Worldwide.

To read the report, go to: http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/BasicDecencyReport2012.pdf <http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/BasicDecencyReport2012.pdf>

Published: Thu, May 17, 2012

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