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Up North prosecutors oppose juvenile lifer legislation

The juvenile holding cell at the Leelanau County Jail.
Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump
The juvenile holding cell at the Leelanau County Jail.

Last month, state lawmakers took another look at outlawing lifetime sentences for juveniles under 19 years old.

If passed, House Bills 4160-4164 and Senate Bills 119-123 would follow precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 10 years ago. It would also make it possible for anyone sentenced for a serious crime as a child to be given the option of parole after 10 years.

The idea had been brought to the state legislature before. Last year, Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) introduced similar bills but they never made it out of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

Now, with a Democratic majority in both chambers, lawmakers are hopeful the legislation will pass in the coming months.

“Michigan law needs to recognize that juvenile offenders deserve a chance at rehabilitation,” Irwin said in a statement. “We shouldn’t turn our backs on juvenile offenders and throw away the key."

Instead, he said, the state should make sure the justice system offers a chance at "rehabilitation, reintegration, and redemption."

But prosecuting attorneys from around the state, including some in northern Michigan, have concerns with the bills.

In a May 18 press release, the prosecutors in Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie and Leelanau counties — Noelle Moeggenberg, James Rossiter, Sara Swanson and Joseph Hubbell, respectively — announced they were in opposition to the proposed bills.

They said Michigan already has a framework for ensuring that juveniles receive a fair and just sentence.

“These proposed bills would make every person convicted of first-degree murder, for an act they committed before their 19th birthday, eligible for parole release after just 10 years,” the Up North prosecutors said in the release. “The county prosecuting attorneys and PAAM (the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan) believe that these laws would be unfair to victims’ families and dangerous to our communities.”

Antrim County Prosecutor James Rossiter said even though there are no current cases that this would affect from his county, the legislation has the potential for long-lasting impacts throughout the state.

He said, for example, that in the case of multiple homicides life without parole should still be an option.

“They're treating them as a juvenile. And this is where the argument is that the brain is not fully developed, they don't have the capacity to understand the ramifications of their actions,” Rossiter said. “I would point out that at 16, the age of consent — you can create a family, you can create life, a very adult decision.”

He also noted that the legislation asks for life without parole sentencing to be banned for anyone under age 19, which is different from the previous raise the age policy that moved the age of a juvenile in the state from 17 to 18 years old last November.

For this specific bill, the age limit of 19 would only be applicable for crimes that have life without parole in their sentencing guidelines, Rossiter said.

“Any other crime that an 18 year old would commit — [such as] home invasion in the first degree, a 20 year felony — he would be subject to the same sentencing factors,” he said.

Some cases like that might involve premeditated murder or first-degree criminal sexual conduct, according to Act 232 of the 1953 Corrections Code.

In a voicemail left with reporters, Leelanau County Prosecutor Joseph Hubbell used Oxford shooter Ethan Crumbley as an example of extremely violent crime committed by juveniles.

“It has an effect on what people think would happen (in those kinds of cases) and what victims of crime expect to happen,” Hubbell said. “In my opinion, there already are restrictions in place that limit the imposition of juvenile life without parole and that this legislation would seriously impact protections for crime victims and potentially release dangerous young offenders.”

An op-ed voicing opposition to the legislation posted on the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan website lists 59 prosecutors from counties across the state as co-signers.

The outcry from prosecutors has made its way to state lawmakers.

State Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) introduced the legislation in the House but expressed sympathy with prosecutors' position in a statement issued May 9.

He proposed substitutions to House bills 4160 through 4164 that would instead require juvenile lifers to be reviewed for parole eligibility after 25 years in prison.

The substitutions would also eliminate provisions in the bills that allow parole eligibility for those who commit mass murder or terrorism altogether.

“The Oxford shooter was 15 when he committed mass murder. It’s not right that he should be parole eligible after 10 years," VanderWall said in a statement. "If these amendments pass, my Republican colleagues and I will have sent a clear message that we won’t tolerate these wanton acts of violence. Let me make it clear: If you shoot up a school, you will go to prison for life without the possibility of parole.”

The bills are currently under review in their respective committees — the Committee on Criminal Justice for House bills 4160 through 4164 and the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee for Senate bills 119 through 123.

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