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Legislation reexamines juvenile life without parole sentences

Judge's gavel on table in office
Pixel-Shot - stock.adobe.com
(Photo: Pixel-shot - stock.adobe.com)

It’s been more than 10 years since the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole.

The landmark case Miller v. Alabama held that sentencing someone under 18 to a life behind bars was cruel and unusual punishment. But, the Court left the door open for judicial discretion, meaning, it’s still up to states to decide. And in half the country, including Michigan, mandatory sentencing is still a possibility for juveniles.

Legislation was recently introduced in both the state House and Senate that would abolish life without parole for juveniles under 19 years old — aligning Michigan with the nearly decade-old national precedent.

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) helped introduce the package of five bills, which he hopes will keep Michigan from lagging behind the 25 other states that have already abolished juvenile life without parole.

“We're proposing to change juvenile sentencing going forward, so that it would be a parole review at 10 years. And those sentences would span from 10 years to 60 years,” Irwin said.

Irwin has helped introduce similar legislation before. Last year, Senate Bills 848–851 were introduced to eliminate juvenile life without parole but never made it out of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

The action has bipartisan support. State Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) helped introduce similar legislation in the House on Thursday.

Both sets of bills were referred to their respective committees for review. In the Senate, they’re in the Judiciary and Public Safety committee; in the House, the Criminal Justice committee.

It’s what people like civil rights attorney Deb LaBelle of the Juvenile Life Without Parole initiative have been advocating for years.

“They do grow up. And if they don't, the parole board has the ability to keep them in if they see there's any risk,” LaBelle said. “Some of them are doing spectacularly, amazingly, after spending decades in prison.”

According to data LaBelle collected, nearly 300 inmates would be affected by the legislation with some sentences going back more than 40 years.


None of those inmates are from any local northern Michigan courts. Court officials confirmed that currently, there is no one from the five county region serving a life without parole sentence that they received as a minor.

But Grand Traverse County Probate Court Judge Jennifer Whitten said it's important for everyone in the state to keep the focus of what juvenile detention is in mind with potential new legislation.

"The purpose of the juvenile justice system is for rehabilitation, and so, I think it's important that always be the focus." she said. "The [U.S.] Supreme Court has already determined that the life without parole is inappropriate, so I think it makes sense that the legislature look at the laws that address that issue."

LaBelle said it’s a question of morality.

“Do we really see our kids as incapable of redemption or change or reformation? It’s always bothered me what that says about us,” she said. “Are we unwilling to look at them and ask, who have they become? What have they done with themselves now that they’re out of a sometimes a toxic environment?”

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Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.