Fed. Judge Makes Case to End Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders
by Efrén Paredes Jr.
A federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan recently ruled that prison sentences are unconstitutional if they are “the functional equivalent of life without parole” (LWOP), exceed a juvenile offender’s lifespan, or do not give the offender a “meaningful opportunity for parole consideration.”
The ruling was made by Judge Mark Goldsmith in the case Hill v. Whitmer, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115855 (decided 7/12/19), regarding prisoners who were sentenced to LWOP when they were juveniles (“juvenile lifers”).
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of all 2,500 prisoners across the nation affected by the ruling.
The Miller decision held that a LWOP sentence could now only be imposed on juveniles in cases where judges have an option to mete out a term-of-years sentence or a LWOP sentence. In other words, judges must have discretion to choose.
The court made it abundantly clear, however, that LWOP sentences could only be imposed in cases where the juvenile offender is “irreparably corrupt” and incapable of change. They also stated that the extreme sentence must become “rare and uncommon.”
Contrary to popular belief, the high court did not ban LWOP sentences altogether for juvenile offenders. They only struck down LWOP sentences in cases where a mandatory sentence was the only sentence that could be imposed by a judge at the time.
In Michigan there were 373 prisoners who needed to be resentenced. Of that number, 235 prisoners — sixty-three percent — have yet to be resentenced and continue serving unconstitutional sentences.
The inordinate delay has been the result of prosecutors abusing their authority to arbitrarily file motions seeking LWOP sentences against hundreds of prisoners who do not meet the requirements outlined in the landmark Miller ruling. Their misconduct has resulted in the need for costly mitigation hearings and expert witnesses at taxpayer expense.
Judge Goldsmith’s ruling strikes at the heart of Michigan’s law regarding the sentencing of juvenile lifers to extreme sentences. If a prison sentence that exceeds a juvenile offender’s lifespan is unconstitutional because it denies the offender meaningful parole consideration, obviously a LWOP sentence that will never provide them parole consideration does as well.
Lawmakers continue clinging to pernicious punishment for juvenile offenders so they can campaign as being “tough on crime” rather than “smart on crime.” LWOP sentences for juveniles would have been abolished years ago as twenty-one other states have already done if not for legislators’ reticence to do the right thing.
If lawmakers are unable to resolve this ongoing legal battle one sensible solution is for Attorney General Dana Nessel to withdraw the motions filed by prosecutors seeking LWOP sentences again for the remaining 235 juvenile lifer cases. This would avert further delays, allow judges to schedule sentencing hearings, and proceed as they normally do when performing other individualized sentencing hearings.
The impediment to moving forward would be removed and prosecutors could still argue for imposition of radically extreme sentences, if they elect to do so. Sentencing bodies are not marionettes to prosecutors, however. They are independent thinkers who can interpret the law and will side with the U.S. Supreme Court more often than they will with prosecutors in the vast majority of cases.
Another proposed solution is for Governor Whitmer to commute the sentences of the remaining juvenile lifers awaiting resentencing to 25- to 60-year sentences, and give jurisdiction to the Parole Board to begin reviewing the cases for parole consideration after the prisoners have served twenty-five years. After twenty-five years all juvenile lifers will have served well over half their entire lives behind bars.
By commuting their sentences the prisoners would all remain convicted and not be released until the Parole Board determines they no longer pose a danger to society. The prisoners would not automatically be released. The Parole Board would use its wealth of resources to make these determinations as they do for thousands of cases each year.
Release of prisoners would be contingent upon their rehabilitation and what they are doing with their time while incarcerated. Those who do not demonstrate growth and maturity could remain incarcerated up to 60 years depending on their behavior, if they live that long.
Of the nearly seventy prisoners who have been paroled none have recidivated and all have become productive members of society. Prisoners serving LWOP sentences who are released have a less than one percent chance of recidivating. This is the lowest recidivism risk of all offense categories.
Commuting the sentences would also save taxpayers millions of dollars that could be reinvested in schools and infrastructure projects rather than spent on avoidable mitigation hearings. Conservative estimates have the cost of 235 hearings being upwards of $10 million to pay for attorneys, qualified expert witnesses, and court hearings.
Political theater and gamesmanship are not the solutions to correct failed public policies that prizedeath-by-incarceration sentences over rehabilitation and redemption for juvenile offenders. Creating more injustice is not a solution to resolving injustice, it only compounds the problem. We need more solutions not more problems.