Michigan has a draconian statute that requires juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life in prison without parole if they are convicted of first degree or felony murder. Over 300 young people are serving life sentences under this sentencing scheme. The United State Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) recently held that practice to be unconstitutional:
“…our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”
The decision has been was widely praised as a much needed return to compassionate and sensible sentencing for kids accused of the most serious crime. Many judges have stated that they would have sentenced convicted juveniles to a term of years but for the mandatory life sentence required by law. Many victims’ families have embraced restorative justice and want the now adult defendants to have a chance at life outside of prison. The legal community began to embrace exactly how the Miller case would be implemented in Michigan. Then, Attorney General “On Duty” Bill Schuette weighed in and opposed retroactive application of the Miller case in Michigan, claiming that the victim’s families should not have to relive the pain of another sentencing hearing. One court of appeals panel agreed in principle. Fortunately, the illogical position of the Attorney General was rebuffed by Federal Judge O’Meara who held that Miller was indeed retroactive, stating:
Indeed, if ever there was a legal rule that should – as a matter of law and morality – be given retroactive effect, it is the rule announced in Miller. To hold otherwise would allow the state to impose unconstitutional punishment on some persons but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice.
A group of remarkably committed attorneys set out on a quest to make Miller a reality in Michigan. Deborah LaBelle was instrumental in developing the creative federal challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan parole laws as applied to defendants convicted when they were under eighteen. Doug Mullkoff was amazingly effective in developing and recruiting a list of attorneys willing to take on the more than 300 pro bono cases. Kimberly Thomas and Jonathan Sacks developed a training program and created a continuing electronic support system to provide the utmost assistance to the volunteer attorneys. Pat Selby is an attorney representing one of the first cases to reach the Michigan courts. These attorneys took on defendants who had been buried alive in the system and whom the Michigan courts had treated with brutal disregard. They took the fight to the courts, and structured a program to be sure that all juvenile “lifers” received excellent representation. Most incredibly, these individuals took on this responsibility pro bono. That’s right, they are working for free!
Sadly, “on Duty” AG Bill Shuette continues his immoral stance on the issue. He sent a letter to Michigan’s prosecutors claiming that the federal ruling applies only to the 5 plaintiffs in the lawsuit; the rest of the juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole aren’t affected by the ruling. Apparently, the attorney general thinks its only an immoral miscarrage of justice if you sue the state in federal court and win. Who’s being cruel and unusual now?