Judge orders state parole process for child offenders serving life

 On Nov. 26, a federal judge ordered that all Michigan prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed while children must be provided a “fair, meaningful and realistic” opportunity for parole. The judge gave the state until Dec. 31 to implement a parole process that comports with his order.

“Courts have repeatedly made it clear that incarcerating children and throwing away the key is cruel and unusual punishment,” said Deborah LaBelle, lead attorney in Hill v Snyder. “Today the court demanded that the state of Michigan take action to comply with the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent set almost two years ago. It’s now up to the state to develop a process that is meaningful and fair.”

In Jan. 2013, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara, following a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, ruled that Michigan’s mandatory sentencing scheme for children convicted of certain crimes is unconstitutional because it treats children as adults and denies them a possibility of parole even if they can demonstrate that they are rehabilitated and pose no danger to society.  Such a system, O’Meara ruled, violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that mandatory life sentences for children are a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and Judge O’Meara’s ruling enforces the Supreme Court’s decisions,” said Ezekiel Edwards, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project director. “At the center of this case is the simple reality that children are different from adults... The parole process should undertake a serious and meaningful examination of the factors that weigh heavily on children: their home environment, immaturity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

The state, represented by the office of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, originally contended that the U.S. Supreme Court decision could not be applied to people already sentenced. The state had also argued that Judge O’Meara’s ruling could only be applied to the six plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. In decisions issued in Jan. and Aug. 2013, Judge O’Meara rejected those arguments, ruling that the state could not continue to enforce its unconstitutional law denying children any possibility of parole, and that his order would apply to all children with life sentences.

The Nov. 26 order forces the state to put in place a process for parole that: creates an administrative structure for processing and determining parole eligibility; gives notice to all who have served 10 years of a life sentence that they are eligible for parole; includes a public hearing for each individual who is eligible for parole; requires the Parole Board to issue a decision and an explanation for its decision in each case; prohibits sentencing judges from vetoing the parole decision; and allows parole-eligible youth to access educational or training programs to assist with their rehabilitation and reentry.

The judge’s order is at www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/HillOrderRequiringParoleProcess.pdf. Other related documents are at www. aclumich.org as well.
Note:?Schuette announced Monday he will appeal the ruling. He will file an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.