Action needed on juveniles, parole

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Michigan legislators need to move quickly to adapt state law to a major U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles, the head of a prosecutors group said last Thursday.

Isabella County prosecutor Larry Burdick said judges need new guidance now that the Supreme Court has given them discretion when they sentence people for first-degree murder committed under the age of 18. In Michigan, juveniles prosecuted as adults for first-degree murder automatically get life in prison without parole. A life sentence still is possible, however, even with the landmark decision.

The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan could propose that a judge hold a hearing to consider aggravating and mitigating factors when sentencing a juvenile for murder, Burdick said. Some prosecutors discussed the issue during a meeting last week.

"The Legislature needs to move in a thorough yet expeditious manner in terms of passing some sort of legislation to address this ruling," Burdick said. "This isn't something where the Legislature takes a year or two to deal with. ... They need to make it a priority."

This Tuesday, a House subcommittee will hold a hearing to discuss the impact on prisoners already serving mandatory no-parole sentences for murder committed when they were under 18. There are more than 350 prisoners, including 67-year-old Sheldry Topp, who has been behind bars for nearly 50 years. Attorneys are expected to go into courts across the state to seek new sentences, especially for people who had indirect roles in a killing but still were given life without parole.

"Prosecutors in general have concerns" about the Supreme Court decision being applied retroactively, Burdick said. "It's clear that's going to be litigated."

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said the Legislature "absolutely" could pass new laws this year if necessary.

"There may be some people who should have parole hearings. As a former sheriff, there are some who should not get out," Jones said.

Published: Mon, Jul 16, 2012