April 2, 2009
It took the current budget crisis for Michigan officials to reconsider state law that allows juveniles to be imprisoned for life.
So as Michigan struggles to balance its $1.5 billion deficit, now is the right time to do the right thing.
State Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, has introduced legislation to ban life without parole for juveniles and allow those already serving such sentences to apply for parole. That humane and sensible move could save the state $9 million to $12 million annually.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences teenagers to life in prison with no chance for parole, according to Human Rights Watch. Michigan ranks second highest in the nation in the number of teens serving life.
Many of those locked up were abused or abandoned and suffer significant and untreated mental illness.
They may be extremely dangerous to themselves and others, but they are not adults. They shouldn't be treated as though they are.
Nor would anyone argue these violent criminals be mixed in with shoplifters and truants.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, it costs about $30,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison. Michigan typically houses 300 to 400 juvenile lifers. Even if the money it now takes to hold them isn't enough to fund a separate state program, it should be sufficient to share one regionally. The initiative might take the young prisoners farther from home, but families could be comforted by the positive trade-off in treatment.
Michigan law now allows 14- to 16-year-olds to be sentenced as adults. Unless offenders are sentenced to the adult prison system right away or when they turn 17, they get out as soon as their juvenile sentence is served.
The law ought to provide a third option — one that allows courts to order those who have committed serious and violent crimes to be sentenced as juveniles, and to be held and treated for as long as they pose a threat to public safety.