The Word from Lansing: Restorative Justice and Juvenile Life Without Parole

Over 350 individuals in Michigan are currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles. The crimes committed have been grave, significantly impacting both families and communities alike. While attempting to balance accountability, public safety, and opportunities for personal rehabilitation within the criminal justice system, elected and appointed officials both in the Legislature and the judiciary have deliberated the constitutionality of a mandatory life sentence for minors.

Despite youths exhibiting reduced levels of maturity and emotional development compared to adults, the history of the juvenile sentence over the past several decades has done little to take these factors into consideration. In 1988, prosecutors in Michigan became able to charge minors as young as fifteen or sixteen in adult court, using a waiver to bypass the need for judicial permission to do so. This change eliminated the ability of a judge to consider specific factors and circumstances regarding a particular case. The waiver was expanded in 1996, which meant life without parole became the mandatory sentence for a minor charged as an adult for serious crimes.

Recent judicial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, have recognized that cognitive and emotional differences between minors and adults provide legitimate reasons for different sentences to be given. Two years ago, Miller v. Alabama ruled that automatically sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, without opportunity for consideration of other sentences, qualified as cruel and unusual punishment. A common theme of this and other rulings focused on the fact that juveniles were denied the opportunity for their age or other factors to be considered in sentencing, the opportunity to mature and be rehabilitated, and the opportunity to show remorse for the crimes they committed.

In February, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed into law legislation that prospectively eliminates the mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole. While life without parole is still allowed under state law as a sentencing option for juveniles, Michigan Catholic Conference supported the policy’s goal to weigh all the factors of a particular case, including age and maturity, before a sentence is issued. The resulting legislation has brought Michigan law into compliance with the Supreme Court decision; however, it leaves the question unanswered about what to do with those sentenced before the new law was signed.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on crime and restorative justice recognizes the human dignity of victims and offenders. Violence and crime has a profound impact on society, and it is the call of the Church and its members to work across the spectrum of violence: to care for victims, to prevent crime, to promote public safety, and to hold offenders accountable. At the same time, the Church has an important role to play in the rehabilitation of offenders, answering the call to “be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment” who are still also members of the body of Christ (Hebrews 13:3).

The U.S. Catholic bishops have pointed out specifically in juvenile life without parole sentences that minors have not developed a fully formed conscience and awareness of their actions, like adults, and every effort should be made to help them change their direction (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, 2000). In 2012, a national survey of these “juvenile lifers” showed that 79 percent had witnessed violence in his or her home, and 54 percent witnessed weekly violence in the neighborhood. Almost half were physically abused. While these figures do not excuse their crimes, they demonstrate the ongoing cycle of violence that must be addressed and the importance of continual attention to rehabilitation and healing in offenders.

Three cases currently before the Michigan Supreme Court could have an impact on those previously sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. The cases, which are likely to receive a ruling in the coming months, will not lead to automatic release, but will provide guidance for Michigan on whether any of the state’s “juvenile lifers” will receive the opportunity to petition for parole and be evaluated on their strides toward rehabilitation. To learn more about the issue of juvenile life without parole, read MCC’s latest FOCUS.