'Juvenile lifers deserve a second look': Lawyer awaits high court rule


By Jo Mathis

Legal News

For years, Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle has been fighting for the end of Michigan's policy of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole.

So if she seems a bit anxious these days, it's understandable.

By the end of the month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide two crucial issues regarding juvenile sentencing that have particular impact in Michigan.

Justices could reject the mandatory sentencing rules affecting juveniles, and could rule that a teen younger than 18 can't be sentenced to life without parole.

"It seems like such a small change to make," she says. "All we ask is, `Look at them again.'"

LaBelle, who directed the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU, and who represents some of the state's juvenile lifers, points out that society recognizes that kids are not responsible for a lot of things--they can't run away home even if it's abusive; they can't support themselves; their brains are still developing.

"So it seems the height of inequity and hypocrisy to then punish you as if you're an adult when you commit a crime," she said. "We should be treating them better. We should be recognizing that in many instances, we failed them. We left them in homes that were abusive. We didn't give them a good education. We suspended them from school when they were troubled. We failed them. And now we punish them. The inequities of it deeply offend me. The least we can do for them is look at them again."

It's up to prosecutors in Michigan to determine if juveniles younger than 17 should be charged as adults. If they are, and they're convicted of first-degree murder, it is mandatory that judges sentence them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Most adults plea bargain a first degree murder charge down to second degree, and spend an average of 12.2 years in prison, LaBelle said.

But young teens don't like to plea because 15 years seems like an eternity and most believe that a jury won't convict them if they weren't the ones to actually commit the homicide.

LaBelle tells of a case in which an adult actually pulled the trigger in a homicide and was out of prison in about 12 years because he pled guilty to second-degree murder, while the teen who refused to plea bargain is locked away for life.

The criminal justice system punishes people based on intent, she said.

"It's not that kids don't understand right from wrong," she said. "It's that they're impulsive. They do really stupid things. They have peer pressure. Adults can force them to do things. Ten years later, they'll say, `I just wish I could go back to the kid I was and say, `What were you thinking? Why did you go with him when he said he was just going to go in and do some drugs and someone ends up dead and I'm in the car and I get now felony murder and I'm gone for the rest of my life.' Did he think dealing with marijuana was wrong? Yes. Did he think anyone was going to get killed? No. Did he kill anyone? No. But under our laws, even though he was a kid and didn't understand all this, he gets punished for the rest of his life."

In 2005, the Supreme Court found the death penalty for youth under 18 to be unconstitutional. Since then, 39 states have rarely, if at all imposed life without parole on youth under 18, adopting the Supreme Court's rational that youth are less culpable, and not irredeemable, LaBelle explained.

In 2010, the Supreme Court in a five to four vote ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment without parole for crimes other than murder violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the Eight Amendment.

The justices are now considering two cases in which the defendants were 14 when they were involved in killings.

Michigan is one of nine states that treat 17-year-olds as adults, and some of those states don't mandate life sentences without parole.

"All we're asking is that you look at them again," she said. "Hey, `You did this at 14. After 15 years in prison, have you matured? Is that enough punishment? Can you now come out and join us? Have we done rehabilitation like we're supposed to do?'

"Judges should be able to take youth into consideration when sentencing, and parole boards should be able to look at them when they mature."

She said there are two arguments commonly made in favor of mandatory life for juveniles: Some crimes are so horrible, the offender is unable to be rehabilitated. And there should be adult time for adult crime.

But she said no one can say who is beyond rehabilitation. And there's no such thing as "adult crime."

"It's crime," she said.

In most states, the courts have discretion and rarely sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole.

The law in Michigan changed first in 1988, and then again in 1996, when judges no longer had the ability to alter the fact that those juveniles who are charged as an adult with first degree murder are automatically sentenced to life without parole if convicted.

LaBelle thinks the law was intended to put away the "worst of the worst."

"But that' not how it played out," she said.

Michigan ranks second in the nation, behind Pennsylvania, for the number of juveniles sent to prison for the rest of their lives. There are now 359 inmates serving such sentences in Michigan.

"The Supreme Court has said that no one can look at a 15-year-old, no matter what they did, and say, `That one moment means that for the rest of your life, you're incapable of change and redemption,'" she said, adding that support for her side is overwhelming, and includes religious and conservative groups as well as the Prison Fellowship ministry.

LaBelle helped write a recent Michigan ACLU report calling for the ability to take an offender's youth in to consideration both at sentencing and at a parole hearing.

Though a victims' group issued a press release critical of the report, LaBelle stands by every word in it.

She also said there's a reason victims' families aren't the ones to impose the sentence.

"That's why we don't have vigilante justice," she said. "You can't be rational about it. Nor should you be."

No one should be in the adult system until they're 18, LaBelle believes. Those with a history of violence who have again committed violence should go to a maximum security youth facility and then be reconsidered when they're perhaps 21.

"If they're still a risk to society, they should go on to an adult prison," she said.

But it's nothing less than cruel to tell a young teenager that he's about to be imprisoned until he dies without determining after a while if he's still a risk to public safety, she added.

The Supreme Court must rule on the matter by the end of the month.

Published: Thu, Jun 14, 2012