Monday, September 14, 2009

Mich. to Rethink Teen Life Sentence

House committee considers bills amid 'emotional testimony'

by Karen Bouffard
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Monday, September 14, 2009

Lansing -- Michigan is among a growing number of states reconsidering whether juveniles should be sentenced to life behind bars with no chance of parole.

The trend has been spurred by scientific evidence that shows teens' brains are not fully developed, leaving them vulnerable to impulsive actions and poor choices.

Teens can be sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole in most states. But Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas have outlawed such sentences.

The Michigan House Judiciary Committee is considering bills that would allow those serving such sentences to be considered for parole, or ban such sentences. Two hearings have been held so far, and the committee plans to propose a package of bills addressing the issue later this fall, according to Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, the committee chairman.

"It was very emotional testimony -- we had victims' families testify, prosecutors testify, relatives of children in prison testify," Meadows said.

Citing scientific evidence about teens' brain development, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the sentencing of people to death for crimes they commit before age 18 is unconstitutional.

Child advocates have seized upon that ruling as a basis to challenge mandatory life sentences for teens, and the Supreme Court is poised to hear two such cases in November.

That argument doesn't hold water with Charles D. Stimson, a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.--based conservative think tank that published in August the book "Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens."

According to Stimson, the Supreme Court made its ruling partly because life sentences without parole provide a sufficient consequence for the most heinous crimes committed by teens. Eliminating such sentences would leave courts with few options for dealing with society's most dangerous teen criminals.

"We do have a juvenile crime problem in the U.S. that is much worse than in the rest of the world," Stimson said. "It's a matter for the states to decide."


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