Hundreds of juveniles in Michigan have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now they have a chance at freedom.
IPR News Radio begins a series called ‘Irredeemable’ Wednesday morning that tells some of the stories of these people.
Reporter Morgan Springer is leading the project. She answered questions about ‘Irredeemable’ and about these prisoners.
Q. Who are these juvenile lifers?
These are people who when they were teenagers … were convicted of first-degree murder. These people ... were given a mandatory life sentence. It was the law, and the sentence was life without the possibility of parole. Now that has changed over the past five years with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that basically said that mandatory life sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. So now states around the country are handling it differently, but Michigan is in the process of resentencing its juvenile lifers.
Q. Why did these teenagers get such harsh sentences in the first place?
There was this idea that was popularized in the mid-1990s by this Princeton professor named John Dilulio who … put out this article calling these teenagers ‘superpredators.' And the idea was basically, there’s this growing number of teenagers who are hardened and remorseless, and are committing these heinous crimes for really minor grievances. So around that time Michigan started sentencing more of these kids who were convicted of murder as adults and that’s when the mandatory juvenile life sentence kicked in.
When the Supreme Court rulings happened, they were basically pushing back against this idea of the superpredator, saying this is not what research shows. Research shows that kids are underdeveloped, they’re immature, they’re influenced by their environment, their upbringing, their degree of education. And basically this is not a reasonable sentence to give to children who have the potential to change and could in the future not be a threat to society.
Q. You are calling this series ‘Irredeemable.’ Where does that name come from?
The name really comes from the way that the legal system has seen these teenagers for years. First of all, just by saying that teenagers who are convicted of first-degree murder should get a life without parole sentence, you’re saying these kids are irredeemable, they’re always going to be a threat to society, they can’t be rehabilitated. That’s what the legal system was saying. Now that’s changed after the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, but it’s only changed to a certain degree.
Here in Michigan, prosecutors were asked to file a motion that says what their recommendation is for each juvenile lifer. Basically they could say, 'I think they should get out earlier or they could say, 'they should still get a life without parole sentence.' These prosecutors have said that 60 percent of the juvenile lifers in this state should still get a life without parole sentence. So they are basically saying … we still think that 60 percent of the juvenile lifers are irredeemable.
Q. Is everything moving forward smoothly now with the resentencing?
It’s a long legal process. It takes time. Michigan has the second largest population of juvenile lifers in the country, so this has been a huge burden for prosecutors to revisit all of these cases. For the cases where prosecutors agree with the defense attorneys that these juvenile lifers should get out … those cases have been moving through the legal system. Some people have already been resentenced. Some people have already gotten out. For the people [that prosecutors are seeking to keep in prison] … those cases haven’t even started being heard. Most of them haven’t been scheduled yet.
‘Irredeemable’ begins on IPR News Radio’s Morning Edition this Wednesday.