The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional for states to impose mandatory, nonparolable life sentences on juvenile homicide offenders. To cure the error caused by mandatory state sentencing schemes – such as the one previously in place in Michigan, which required life in prison without parole for juvenile first-degree murderers – the Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners who are currently serving mandatory life sentences for youthful homicide offenses must be given a new sentencing hearing or the opportunity for eventual release.
There are presently about 360 individuals serving nonparolable life sentences in Michigan prisons for homicide offenses committed when they were juveniles. Of these, 145 committed their crimes in Wayne County.
Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy believes that 64 of the 145 should again be sentenced to life in prison without parole – the same sentence they are already serving. But the Supreme Court has strongly suggested that such wholesale reinstatement of life-without-parole sentences might not pass constitutional muster, and Worthy’s views on the subject are becoming increasingly difficult to defend.
A little background might be helpful. In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile murderers. In its decision, the Supreme Court majority explained that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” because they have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” The Miller Court remarked that juvenile offenders are less mature, more susceptible to the negative influences of peer pressure, and still undergoing mental and emotional development at the time of their crimes. For these reasons, the Court observed, offenders who commit their crimes as juveniles are more likely as a class to be rehabilitated than those who commit their crimes as adults.
The Miller Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentencing schemes for juveniles. True, the Supreme Court did not entirely foreclose the possibility of life in prison without parole for a juvenile homicide offender. However, it held that a trial judge must individually consider mitigating factors such as the juvenile’s maturity, moral culpability, impetuosity, family circumstances, prospects for reform, and other relevant characteristics before imposing such a severe sentence. “[G]iven all we have said . . . about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” Miller made clear that, in the vast majority of juvenile homicide cases, the Eighth Amendment requires the judge to impose a sentence that carries the possibility of parole.
Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its decision in Miller applied retroactively, requiring states to reevaluate the sentences of prisoners serving life without parole for youthful homicide crimes. In particular, Montgomery held that sentences of life without parole are prohibited “for all but the rarest” of juvenile homicide offenders. The Court’s majority explained that although a trial judge “might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified,” life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers are appropriate only in the most exceptional cases.
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, the Michigan Legislature enacted MCL 769.25a. The statute requires the trial judge (or his or her successor) to reevaluate the sentence of each prisoner who is serving life without parole for a murder committed before the age of 18. Under the statute, and in accordance with Miller, the judge must hold an individualized hearing and consider mitigating factors in each specific case to determine whether the offender’s original sentence of life in prison without parole is justified. If it is, the judge may again impose the same life-without-parole sentence. But if it is not, the judge must resentence the offender to a parolable prison term with a minimum ranging from 25 to 40 years and a maximum of 60 years.
The Legislature gave county prosecuting attorneys until this summer to identify which offenders they believe should remain in prison for life without parole, and which offenders they believe should be resentenced to a parolable term of years under the new statute.
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As noted previously, Worthy has announced that she will ask the circuit court to reimpose life-without-parole sentences for 64 of the 145 Wayne County offenders at issue.
Sixty-four out of 145 individuals – that’s 44%. In other words, Worthy is seeking to keep 44% of these Wayne County offenders in prison until they die. Does 44% strike you as “all but the rarest?” Does 44% seem “uncommon?”
Worthy insists that many of these 64 offenders committed particularly brutal or heinous crimes. And I’m sure she’s right. Indeed, during my 10 years at the Michigan Court of Appeals, I reviewed several cases involving exceedingly brutal murders committed by young offenders. It certainly happens.
Nevertheless, at least on some level, aren’t all murders heinous? Consider the murders at issue in Miller and Montgomery, which were no less brutal or troubling than most. In Miller, one of the 14-year-old defendants participated in the robbery of a video rental store in Blytheville, Arkansas. When the store clerk refused to hand over the money, she was shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun. Another defendant, also 14 years old, went to his neighbor’s trailer in Lawrence County, Alabama, with the intention of robbing him. Once inside the trailer, the defendant and his 16-year-old accomplice decided to beat the neighbor with their fists and a baseball bat. Then they set his trailer on fire and left him for dead. In Montgomery, the 17-year-old defendant was convicted of shooting and killing a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Under controlling Supreme Court case law, it is clear that the brutality or heinousness of the murder is not dispositive of whether a juvenile offender should be given a chance at parole. Instead, in accordance with Miller and Montgomery, the salient inquiry is whether the offender is “irretrievably depraved” or “irreparabl[y] corrupt[ed].”
Kym Worthy cannot possibly know that 44% of the individuals serving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenses in Wayne County are irretrievably depraved and irreparably corrupted – especially now, when several of them have already been incarcerated for decades. The entire point of Miller was that the court must first hold an individualized hearing and consider various mitigating factors pertaining to the offender’s unique circumstances and mental development at the time of the offense. Only then may a judge find that an offender exhibits indicia of irreversible depravity and corruption sufficient to warrant life in prison without parole, a finding that will only be appropriate in rare and exceptional cases. It is simply not a judgment call for the local prosecutor.
It is well settled that a prosecuting attorney’s job is to do justice, not merely to obtain convictions or put people in prison. As a minister of justice and an officer of the court, Worthy has an ethical duty to follow the United States Constitution and comply with United States Supreme Court precedent. By asking the circuit court to impose the exact same life-without-parole sentences for 44% of the Wayne County juvenile homicide offenders in question, Worthy has abdicated her duty to do justice and has disregarded the Supreme Court’s directive to pursue parolable sentences in “all but the rarest” cases.
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Nick Krieger is a lawyer and blogger with particular interests in constitutional law and the legislative process. In his former position with the Michigan Court of Appeals, he routinely interpreted and analyzed complex statutory language.
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