Michigan Juvenile Lifers Win Court Victory

– Hill V. Snyder, 6th Cir. 2016

On May 11, it was ordered by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that a “meaningful and realistic opportunity for release” must be granted to all Michigan juvenile “lifers,” or those sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes allegedly committed when these individuals were juveniles.  Currently, there are more than 364 individuals incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons who were sentenced to spend their entire lives there for crimes they committed as children.

In the case of Hill v. Snyder, the ruling by the Sixth Circuit follows two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional (Miller v. Alabama); further, this punishment has been declared as “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The decision in the Miller v. Alabama case is retroactive to all juvenile lifers (Montgomery v. Louisiana).

Michigan has the second highest per capita population of juvenile lifers in this country, and is one of four states that held Miller was not retroactive.  Additionally, ours is the only country on this earth that sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole, which is essentially a death sentence.

Hill v. Snyder began when Michigan tried juvenile plaintiffs as adults for crimes they committed when younger than 18 years of age.  All plaintiffs in the case were convicted on charges of first-degree murders, and sentenced to mandatory life in prison.  At the time of these convictions, the laws in Michigan made any individual who was found guilty of first-degree murder ineligible for parole.  In 2010, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging whether the state’s statutory scheme barring them from eligibility for parole was in fact constitutional.  Since that time, several important legal events have resulted in changes in how juvenile lifers are treated.

In November of 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Corbett O’Meara ruled that all juvenile lifers in the state of Michigan were eligible for parole after serving 10 years.  The Sixth Circuit suggested that the judge may want to formalize the class action status of his ruling, while Michigan continued to insist the ruling applied only to the plaintiffs in Hill v. Snyder.

Now, it seems that hundreds of juvenile lifers may get the opportunity to be re-sentenced, and the Michigan Court of Appeals was asked last month to make the decision as to whether a jury or judge should give those who were sentenced to life without parole a new sentence.  In Michigan, cases date back some 54 years – to 1962. Ultimately there are some individuals who are now in their 60’s and 70’s who have spent their entire lives behind bars when as juveniles, may have committed crimes out of immaturity or even the direction of older defendants.

In an April 2016 article at The Detroit News, assistant defender at the State Appellate Defenders Office Valerie Newman said there would still be parole hearings, and that juvenile lifers should not expect that the prison doors would be opened so that all could go free.  Newman said that while there would be a process and hearing, some of the defendants would be determined unfit for release.

Many of the juvenile lifers have served about 25 years, some have served far longer.  For juvenile defense attorneys, it appears as though many of these defendants who were children when they were essentially sentenced to die in prison will have a second chance. Perhaps they will finally get justice, especially those who have paid their debt to society or may have been found guilty on false or uncertain grounds.

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