Sunday, March 15, 2009

Juvenile Lifer Bills in Senate

by Diane Bukowski
The Michigan Citizen
Sunday, March 15, 2009

DETROIT — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy charged a 17-year-old with assault with intent to commit murder, felonious assault, assault with a dangerous weapon on school grounds, carrying a concealed weapon and felony firearm after he wounded another 17-year-old in the stomach inside Central High School Feb. 18.

The two were gambling in the halls, a practice that has being going on since at least the 70s, according to one Central High alumni. The 17-year-old faces up to life in prison. Days later, police raided CHS and carried away teens as young as 14 on police buses to face loitering charges, whether or not they were students.

“Until they improve the conditions in our schools, there will be more trouble,” said Steve Conn, a high school teacher for 22 years with the Detroit Public Schools. “Despair runs so deep among our young people, who are treated like their lives don’t matter.”

A 16-year-old Detroiter was ordered to stand trial on first-degree murder charges Feb. 5 in connection with the shooting death of an Oak Park police officer, under unclear circumstances. Numerous suburbanites wrote in to daily news message boards calling for his execution, or at least life without parole, although he has not yet been tried or convicted.

These children, and numerous others in Detroit and communities across Michigan, have 400 counterparts already in the system, children who were sentenced at the age of 17 or below to life in prison without parole, and at least 1,000 others serving lengthy jail terms. The number of juvenile non-parolable lifers is up substantially from slightly over 300 a year ago, indicating that more juveniles are newly entering the system, condemned to death behind bars.

But there is hope on the horizon.

“The Juvenile Life Without Parole bills that were passed last year in the House of Representatives represent the greatest hope I have had in 33 years,” wrote Edward Sanders. “These bills must be voted on in the Senate now, to give the second chance we pray for.”

Sanders, who is currently incarcerated at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, was 17 when he was convicted in a drive-by shooting in 1976, although he was not the shooter.

He is awaiting word from the Michigan parole board regarding his request for commutation. Before Michigan prisons ceased providing college courses, he obtained his bachelor’s degree and now helps other prisoners as a “jail-house” lawyer and spiritual advisor.

Sanders was referring to Senate Bills 0171 through 0176, sponsored by State Sens. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), Martha Scott (D-Highland Park) and Michael Switalski (D-Roseville). Co-sponsors include Glenn Anderson, (D-Westland), Michael Prusi (D-Ishpeming), Samuel “Buzz” Thomas (D-Detroit), Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit), and Gilda Jackson (D-Huntington Woods).

House versions were passed Dec. 4 by an overwhelming margin of 83-22. The current Senate bills, however, will have to go back to the House again for approval before they can be forwarded to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

“The idea of sending a person whose brain is not fully developed to prison for life has been determined to be inhumane,” said Brater. “The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world, and Michigan is one of few states in the U.S. with this practice. Many of these youth were sentenced along with an adult defendant who got a lesser sentence and many were victims of abuse or neglect or are people with a mental illness or disability.”

The series of bills therefore addresses alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill individuals and diversion from jail under other circumstances as well as the central life without parole question.

S.B. 0173 says, “An individual who was less than 18 years of age when he or she committed a crime for which he or she was sentenced to serve a minimum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more, or who was sentenced to imprisonment for life, including imprisonment for life without parole eligibility, who has served 10 years of his or her sentence is subject to the jurisdiction of the parole board and may be released on parole.”

The bill specifies several aspects of the prisoner’s individual situation for the parole board to consider.

All six bills, introduced Jan. 29, are now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by State Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-Dewitt). Cropsey has expressed reluctance to let the bills out of committee.

Brater said that although the Senate is predominantly Republican, efforts are constantly being made to reach out to that side of the aisle. A particular consideration is the huge cost of such incarcerations. Both the Greater Detroit and Michigan Chambers of Commerce have passed resolutions calling for a reduction in Michigan’s prison population, along with numerous other organizations and even major media.

Felicia Tyson, part of a group of family members of juvenile lifers, said that they are continuing to organize and lobby Senators as well as Representatives, in the same fashion that won passage of the House bills last year.

“We are asking people to write, phone and email their legislators, and are planning a mass visit to the House in April,” said Tyson. Over 200 family members and even victims turned out for a lobbying effort last year.

The website for the group can be found at

The group’s address is P.O. Box 251941, West Bloomfield, MI 48325-1941 and phone 248-738-2111. An online petition to legislators is available at


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