Don’t lock kids up and throw away the key

Michigan lawmakers will have a chance soon to right a grave wrong in the state’s criminal justice system — the practice of locking up and forgetting about children who commit capital crimes.

Legislation is expected to be introduced later this month that would limit the amount of time those under 18 could spend in prison without a review of their status.

The Second Look bill is expected to have bipartisan support. It will clarify a confusing juvenile justice environment in Michigan.

Deb LaBelle of the Juvenile Life Without Parole initiative says the bill would abolish life sentences for juveniles and replace them with terms of no less than 10 years and no greater than 60 years. The most significant piece of the legislation is that those sentenced as juveniles would get a chance to appear before the parole board after 10 years for an assessment. In Michigan, you can get life without parole if the court deems you irredeemable,î LaBelle says. How can you say that about a 15-year-old?î

The U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory sentences for juveniles, but left the door open for judicial discretion. The Michigan Supreme Court placed the burden of proof of incorrigibility on local prosecutors. LaBelle says in half of Michigan’s counties, all juveniles convicted of a crime that carries a life sentence without parole are receiving that punishment.

She says 79 inmates currently would be impacted by the law. It’s inhumane to deny any chance of rehabilitation to teens, or to declare that their lives can never be redeemed. Most will be vastly different people as they grow into adulthood, and yet they may never get a chance to demonstrate that change under the current law.

Passing the law will be made difficult, of course, by the case of Nathan Crumbley, who at age 15, killed four of his fellow Oxford High School students and is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to the murders.

The new law would not give Crumbley or others like him a pass out of prison in 10 years, and it’s unlikely to happen given the nature of his crime.

If he gets out, he’d probably be a very old man,î LaBelle says. But he’s a prime example of the need for this legislation. There’s a recognition he was a kid who cried out for help. Who is going to stand there and say if he spends 10 to 15 years in prison and grows up, he’s incapable of getting better? He’s a kid who wrote “help me” and we didn’t. And now we want to throw him away.î

Offering the possibility of a second chance will be a powerful incentive for youthful convicts to work hard to rehabilitate themselves.

Roughly 200 Michigan convicts have been resentenced under the requirements of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. LaBelle says not one has committed a new crime.

Justice does not always need to wield an iron hand. Distinguishing between hardened adult criminals and still developing teen offenders is essential in creating a redemptive justice system, and an act of compassion.

Lawmakers should pass this bill and make it strong enough that prosecutors and judges can’t subvert it.

— The Detroit News


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