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New report highlights challenges for Michigan's juvenile lifers

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Teen offenders in Michigan are worse off than teens in other states.

That's according to a new report from Michigan-based Second Chances 4 Youth and the state chapter of the ACLU

The report says Michigan’s justice system is inconsistent in the way it treats juvenile offenders facing life in prison. Those inconsistencies include  being more likely to have lawyers with disciplinary records and actually being more likely to receive longer sentences than adults accused of similar crimes.

Michigan is second in the nation in the number inmates serving non-parolable life sentences for crimes commited as minors. It currently has 358.

Deborah LaBelle, the principal author of the report said, “kids are fundamentally different than adults.”

LaBelle writes:

“They are impulsive, inexperienced, vulnerable to mistreatment, and are not able to easily escape or cope with abuse and other trauma. While there is no denying that youth must be held accountable for actions, as a state, we can do better than sentencing them to die in prison.”

As John Barnes with MLive reports, the study comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether non-parolable life sentences for juveniles violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It also comes as Michigan lawmakers are considering closing the state’s three detention centers for treating juveniles charged with serious crimes.

Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.

According to the study:

• Juveniles accused in the death of a white victim were 22% less likely to be offered a reduced plea by prosecutors than if the victim was black or another race. The plea disparity is most pronounced in a handful of counties, the report claims, including Calhoun, Berrien and Oakland. • The report suggests many of the inmates were not well represented, with 38 percent of attorneys for juvenile lifers disciplined by the State Bar for ethical violations. The vast majority are court appointed attorneys. • Juveniles represented by a non-disciplined lawyer were 43 percent more likely to accept offers to plead to a lesser crime than a youth represented by a disciplined lawyer. • A life without parole sentence for each juvenile will exceed an estimated $2 million over their lifetime.


Mercedes Mejia is a producer and the Director of Stateside.
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