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State Supreme Court sets new rules for sentencing youth to life

Judge's gavel with books on a desk
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The Michigan Supreme Court has set new boundaries around life sentences for young people convicted of murder.

The 4-3 decisions were closely divided between the court’s Democratic Party-nominated justices and the justices nominated by the Republican Party.

The majority on a divided court held that automatic sentences of life without parole for defendants 18 or younger constitute “cruel or unusual punishment” under the Michigan Constitution, and that the decision will align Michigan with a key U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Miller v. Alabama.

Deborah LaBelle is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. She said the decisions require courts to take a highly individualized approach to sentencing juveniles.

“So what the judge should be looking at, is this a child capable of rehabilitation and change as they grow up or are they somehow irredeemable?” she told Michigan Public Radio.

LaBelle said the decisions could affect hundreds of people sent to prison as teenagers, who will now get a chance at parole.

In one of the cases, Republican-nominated Justice David Viviano’s dissent accused the majority of acting outside its authority.

“The majority’s holding finds no support in the statute and conflicts with our case law, and its rewriting of the statute raises serious separation-of-powers concerns,” he wrote.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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