Sentenced to die in prison, 'juvenile lifers' ask lawmakers to end life without parole for minors
From the new storefronts downtown to the demolished houses in the neighborhood he was raised in, Detroit is almost unrecognizable to Yusef Qualls. He grew up in the city but he was never supposed to see it – or anything else outside the walls of a prison – ever again.
Eight days after his release from prison in June, Qualls took in the view from a recently redeveloped park on the riverfront. “The whole city looks completely different,” he said. “But just like the city changed – completely – people also change.”
Qualls was sentenced to life without parole for a double murder he was involved in when he was 16. Evidence presented in court was inconclusive about whether he had a gun; he has maintained that he was unarmed.
Still, a jury found him guilty and the judge had little choice but to sentence Qualls to die in prison. “I stand out here at 44 and not really knowing if I was really going to make it out,” he said. “And I’m out here. It’s emotional. It’s emotional.”
Now, a bill before the state legislature would ban life without parole sentences for people under 19.
Michigan: the “worst place in the world”
Mandatory life sentences like the one Qualls received were part of a wave of so-called “tough on crime” laws enacted in the 1990s, a time when public panic over “superpredators” reached a fever pitch. In many ways, the fear that young people — especially Black teenagers — were conditioned for merciless violence persisted.
“If Michigan has the largest population of juvenile lifers in the country, then that means that Michigan is the worst place in the world in terms of how it treats justice-involved children.”
Judges in Michigan sentenced more minors to life without parole — the harshest possible prison sentence — than any state except for Pennsylvania. Qualls is one of more than 360 people who were told that they would live out the rest of their lives in prison for crimes they were involved in before they turned 18.
Half of them have now been released and 90% have been resentenced, in most cases to a finite length of time.
“The U.S. is the only country in the world that is known to sentence children to die in prison,” said Preston Shipp, who works on policy issues for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national advocacy organization. “If Michigan has the largest population of juvenile lifers in the country, then that means that Michigan is the worst place in the world in terms of how it treats justice-involved children.”
By the 2000s, public sentiment about young people who commit crimes was shifting, due in part to new research into adolescent brain development, fewer crimes being committed by minors, as well as advances in brain science that suggested young people are inherently more prone to taking risks even when consequences may be severe.
Citing that research, even John J. Dilulio Jr., the Princeton University professor who coined the term “superpredator,” signed onto the argument that young people should not be locked up for life with the same frequency as adults.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling that mandatory life without parole sentences for minors were unconstitutional, and reserved the sentence for only in “rare” cases.
In Miller v. Alabama, the Court pointed to what it described as the “diminished culpability of youth” due to one’s age, including the increased susceptibility to peer pressure, inability to leave challenging environments, and potential for undermining their own defense. The Court established a set of considerations that had to be met before a minor could be sentenced to life without parole.
Some states met the decision by outlawing life without parole for minors or reassessing the cases of those who had been sentenced to life without parole as minors. For years, Michigan did neither, with then-Attorney General Bill Schuette leading the charge against such a decision, arguing it would “undermine the community’s safety and would offend principles of finality.”
Then, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court forced the state to act. Its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana made the Miller opinion retroactive, requiring hundreds of so-called “juvenile lifers” to get a chance at release.
Since Miller, only five people under 18 have been sentenced to life without parole in Michigan, according to civil rights attorney Deborah LaBelle, a civil rights attorney who has helped to defend juvenile lifers across the state.
Oakland County Circuit CourtJudge Kwamé Rowe decided last week that Ethan Crumbley, the Oxford School shooter, could be the sixth. A sentencing hearing in December will determine whether the shooter will be eligible for parole.
“We’re reneging” on a promise
Reopening those cases was a wrenching process for victims’ families, said Tom Dawson, a retired Wayne County assistant prosecutor who was responsible for overseeing the resentencing of 144 people sentenced to life without parole as minors in Wayne County.
“Us as a society gave our word that they were going to prison for the rest of their life,” he said. “Now, we’re reneging on that promise.”
Dawson and his team reached out to the families of juvenile lifers’ victims to tell them the people they expected to spend the rest of their lives in prison might be released after all.
“Many of them were very upset about this,” Dawson said. “No amount of reason about why the law changed was satisfactory to them, because their loved one was dead, their loved one was never coming back. Yet our law had changed and was letting the murderer of their loved one out of prison.”
Ultimately, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office sought life without parole for 63 or the 144 defendants a second time. In 81 cases, they agreed to a sentence shorter than life.
For Jody Robinson, whose brother Jimmy Cotaling was killed by a 16- and 19-year-old in an abandoned house in Oakland County, reconsidering the life without parole sentences for those responsible for his death was like reopening a wound.
“As long as legislatures introduce and support bills that provide criminals sentenced to [life without parole] the opportunity for parole, my family will be sentenced to life with no chance of parole,” she wrote in a post for the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, an advocacy organization.
“That’s not our system”
The kind of parity that some victims’ families seek isn’t in line with the way the justice in the U.S. is supposed to work, according to LaBelle.
“An eye for an eye,” she said, “that’s not our system.”
For LaBelle, who has come to know dozens of former juvenile lifers through her work, the ability of people to rehabilitate themselves – one of the factors judges are required to consider for juveniles charged with murder – has been profound.
“You have to be amazed at it: The human spirit and what it's capable of,” she said.
People once sentenced to die in prison have learned technical skills or work in advocacy organizations. Some, like Edward “Baraka” Sanders, have earned graduate degrees. As a teenager, Sanders was sentenced to life without parole for a homicide he was involved in as a 17-year-old. While he was incarcerated, he made a promise to a family member to make something of his life.
“The first conversation I had with my grandfather was that I was going to turn this around,” he said. Although Michigan prison officials barred people sentenced to life without parole from education and enrichment programs when Sanders entered the system in the 1970s, he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree during his incarceration.
Since being resentenced and released in 2017, Sanders has earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. He recently launched an organization to offer support services to people re-entering society following lengthy prison sentences.
Allowing for resentencing — or even banning life without parole for juveniles — is not the “get out of jail free card” some might think it is due to the work of parole boards and probation officers, according to LaBelle.
“It's not like you're saying no accountability, no, no punishment. What you're saying is just look at them,” she said. “You know, keep open the opportunity that you will look at them, we will look at them and 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and you'll say enough is enough.”
Every other sentence — including life with parole – allows for that reassessment.
“You can probably be rehabilitated”
Yusef Qualls faced two counts of first-degree murder, in addition to three other charges, for his role in the shooting death of two women. One of them was the ex-girlfriend of Corey Manning, a friend of Qualls. Manning shot her as she hid in a closet with her aunt. Another person, a family friend, was shot as well — although it’s unclear from the court record who shot him. Ultimately, a jury found both Manning and Qualls guilty.
The judge who presided over the case, Wendy Baxter, had only two choices when it came to determining his sentence: Qualls could be sent to a juvenile facility until he turned 21 or he could receive a life without parole sentence.
There was no in-between.
Ultimately, she decided a few years in a juvenile facility wasn’t enough.
“You can probably be rehabilitated and you could probably be a productive member of society,” Judge Baxter said at the end of Qualls’ trial. “But the fact is that besides rehabilitation there is a punishment function of sentencing, and the punishment that is mandated by the statute is appropriate to these kinds of events.”
With those remarks, Baxter sentenced Qualls to spend the rest of his life in prison.
“Welcome home, my brother”
In a lot of ways, Qualls and other juvenile lifers grew up in prison. He learned how to shave and got his GED, but he also had to come to terms with his crime.
“The pain, the remorse, the gamut of emotions that we all experience starting at a much younger age is the thing that kept us close,” Qualls said.
The unique challenges of their sentence — being sent to prison when their lives were just beginning and knowing their lives would also end there — created bonds that have lasted beyond the bars and walls of prison facilities.
Those bonds have played a major part in helping Qualls adjust to life after his life sentence.
“Welcome home, my brother,” an older man, also a former juvenile lifer, said as he wrapped Qualls in an embrace at the riverfront park just a little over a week after Qualls got out of prison. They’d gathered in support of a slate of criminal justice reform measures, including a ban on future life without parole sentences for minors in Michigan.
After decades of not having really any choices, Qualls said he wants to make sure he does the right thing now. Qualls is living in a house owned by a fellow former juvenile lifer. He got a full-time job in a cabinet factory after an introduction by another juvenile lifer. In many ways, the same people who helped him survive as a boy in prison, are now helping him learn how to live as a free man.
His newfound freedom is something he never wants to take for granted: “My decisions, the things that I'm doing now, is trying to ensure that I have agency.”