Monday, September 14, 2009

Teen Lifers a Burden for State's Prisons

Mich. ranks second in number of young killers behind bars

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

Lansing-- Michigan's high number of teens sentenced to life in prison without parole has child advocates questioning laws that give judges that option.

Behind bars are 346 teens who are serving life without parole for crimes they committed between the ages of 14 and 17, according to the Department of Corrections.

A study by the University of Texas says Michigan has the second most such inmates in the country. The report also says Michigan is among the harshest in the way it treats teens accused of major crimes.

Michigan's laws are unusual in that they allow juvenile judges to impose adult penalties on children too young to be transferred to adult criminal court, according to the report by the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs.

"Children simply aren't as culpable as adults because their brains aren't fully developed yet, and they are much more capable of rehabilitation," said Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas and principal investigator of the study.

The number of teens sentenced to life in Michigan could climb following a recent rash of crimes in Metro Detroit that police say were committed by teens. In one of the more high-profile incidents, 12-year-old Demarco Harris is charged with shooting a 24-year-old woman to death as she sat in her car on West Outer Drive. His preliminary exam is set for Sept. 25.

Harris was charged as a juvenile, but with "adult designation" -- meaning Judge Leslie Kim Smith, who will oversee his trial in Wayne County Juvenile Court, has wide discretion when it comes to sentencing. If Harris is found guilty, he can be charged as a juvenile or an adult, or the judge can opt to review his conduct at age 19 and resentence him as an adult or juvenile.

If sentenced as an adult, Harris could face life in prison with no chance for parole.

The option to sentence juveniles as adults is "harsh" treatment, the study's authors said. Michigan's guidelines -- unlike most states' -- require a child who is convicted as an adult of first-degree murder to receive the same sentence as an adult: mandatory life in prison without parole.

The report, released this summer, gave Michigan the dubious distinction, along with three other states -- Pennsylvania, Florida and South Carolina -- of having children most likely to end up in adult prisons, because of mandatory sentencing laws and the ease of transferring juveniles into the adult system or imposing adult sentences.

One of the most notorious cases of a juvenile being prosecuted as an adult was that of Nathaniel Abraham of Pontiac, who was 11 in 1997 when he fatally shot Ronnie Greene Jr.

Abraham was convicted of murder as an adult at age 13 under a new sentencing law that allowed the judge to sentence him as an adult or a juvenile. Judge Eugene Athur Moore sentenced him to eight years in a juvenile facility.

Abraham, now 22, was sentenced in January to four to 20 years for drug trafficking.

'Cheapens value of life'

Advocates argue young teen criminals should get a second chance, as Abraham did. But many prosecutors and victims' relatives say some youths' crimes are so horrific that justice can be served only by a life sentence.

Greg King would agree. His daughter, 18-year-old Michigan State University student Karen Ann King, was at home in Saginaw visiting her parents on Jan. 3, 1997, when she was carjacked, kidnapped, raped, tortured and finally strangled by 15-year-old Shytour Williams and his cousin August McKinley Williams, 18, a prison parolee. Both were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

"Thinking (of freeing them) cheapens the value of my daughter's life," said Greg King. "The murderers get to see their families, talk to their families, receive gifts from their families -- and now we want to let them go. Myself and my family can only visit my daughter Karen at her gravesite."

The Texas study raises policy questions as Michigan is moving to deplete its prison population to reduce costs.

As Michigan faces a $2.8 million deficit for the budget year starting Oct. 1, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has shut prisons and paroled about 3,000 more prisoners than usual to shave $120 million in costs. Granholm has commuted more prison sentences than any other governor since at least 1969 -- 100 in less than seven years, compared with 35 during Gov. John Engler's 12 years in office.

The question becomes 'why'

After 29 years in prison, Henry Hill Jr., 45, claims he has been rehabilitated by the state Department of Corrections. He got life without parole for a shooting in Saginaw's Veterans Memorial Park in 1980, when he was 16.

Though a court-appointed psychologist found Hill to have the educational level of a third-grader when he entered the system, he attained his GED, earned certificates in several skilled trades and has finished several college classes. At Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, which houses 770 adults and 440 youthful offenders in separate wings, he tries to act as a mentor for teenage felons.

Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart said some of those housed at her facility, who as teens were sentenced to life, could safely be released back into the community.

"Absolutely," she said. "The question becomes: Are you scared of them, or are you mad at them? When we're locking up people because we're mad at them, we're compromising our resources."

Mike Thomas, the prosecuting attorney in Saginaw County, said the focus should not be on whether kids should be jailed with adult sentences, but rather why kids are committing the crimes.

"To me, that's much more important to deal with than whether a teen should get life without parole for killing," said Thomas, whose county has put more teens behind bars with no chance of parole than any other in the state.

"The question the Legislature should be dealing with is why are these kids doing this stuff," he said.


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