Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Juveniles Sentenced to Life Without Parole Cost the State Millions
The Michigan Messenger
2/24/09 7:16 AM
Michigan’s prison system holds 346 inmates who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children. As the state struggles with a $1.5 billion deficit and a prison system that eats up 20 percent of the budget, a bill to end the controversial practice of sending minors to prison for life may gain momentum in the state Legislature.
The United States is the only nation that allows life without parole for juvenile offenders and, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, Michigan ranks third among states for number of people serving such sentences.
Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, an advocate for banning mandatory life sentences for children, explained that Michigan’s large number of juvenile lifers is a result of legislation enacted in the 1980s during a period of fear about a wave of juvenile crime.
“People were worried about ‘super predators,’” she said. “States around the country started really cracking down, with laws that were intended to get the worst of the worst — kids so far gone that there is nothing that can help them.”
But the fear was a scare tactic, Weisberg said. “In fact the juvenile crime wave was temporary and has gone down.”
In a third of the cases in which Michigan juveniles are sentenced to life without parole, she said, the crime is their first offense.
But tough-on-crime laws beginning in 1988 mandated life without parole sentences for certain crimes, and allowed children as young as 14 to be tried as adult without a special hearing.
Legislation introduced this month by state Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, would ban life without parole for juveniles. It would also allow those already serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles to apply for parole after a portion of their sentence is served.
“It is inhumane and it is inappropriate to take children before their brains are fully developed and subject them to same sentence that adults would get,” Brater said. “Many of them were sentenced along with an adult defender who got a lesser sentence and many of these youth were victims of abuse or neglect in their homes or are people with mental illness or disability.”
In addition to the ethical problems, she said, incarcerating young people for their full lives represents a significant expenditure for taxpayers and this money could probably do more to prevent crime if spent earlier in life on services like pre-school.
It costs at least $30,000 per year to keep an inmate in the state prison system, according to the Department of Corrections. With 346 mostly still-young lifers serving time for juvenile crime, the current law that prohibits rehabilitation and release will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several decades.
Brater, who has introduced this same legislation in the last two legislative session, said that she feels it has developed some momentum. Last year the House held a hearing on the legislation and then passed it with strong bipartisan support.
Gary Walker is president of the Michigan Prosecutors Association, a group that has historically opposed bills to end mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
The legislation proposed by Brater could represent a “monumental change in terms” for the Michigan criminal justice system, Walker said, because the general age of criminal responsibility is 17 in Michigan and a large number of criminal offences are committed by people between 17 and 18 years old.
In Michigan, as in 13 other states, people who are 17 years old are considered adults by the criminal justice system, Walker said. Prosecutors have the option of charging younger offenders as juveniles, Walker said, and generally charge them as adults only in cases involving “horrific” crimes.
The legislation to end juvenile life without parole would in effect change the age of criminal responsibility to 18, Walker said.
“There is no real magic to the age of responsibility,” he said. Some people as young as 16 are fully aware of the meaning of their actions and decades ago the age of majority was 21.
“If we were to be starting out now, 18 may well be an appropriate choice.”
Walker said that Michigan prosecutors are open to working the legislation’s supporters.
“We are always willing to discuss legislation and we try to shape it in a way that is appropriate to Michigan citizens,” he said. “I want to see the kids in caps and gowns, not in jump suits.”
While Brater’s legislation has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, it remains unclear whether the bill will be considered further.