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Michigan struggles with new law impacting juvenile lifers

A federal judge recently ordered Michigan to comply with a new law stemming from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated the state's sentencing scheme for juveniles. In a 2012 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held the state's sentencing scheme of mandatory life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The decision requires the sentencing judge to analyze each case individually, looking at the circumstances of the case, the juvenile's personal history, and the potential for rehabilitation-- before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

Michigan's prisons hold 350 inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as minors. Some committed vicious acts, yet some were merely present while others did the act. That is largely why the highest court has declared the mandatory life without parole sentence unconstitutional. The court ruled there must be a closer look at the offender and the circumstances of the crime before such a severe sentence can be imposed upon a young person.

States are grappling with whether the Supreme Court decision applies retroactively, since it was silent on the issue. The federal judge in Michigan clearly interprets it to apply retroactively. He ordered the state to develop a process for offering parole hearings-- including notice of eligibility to inmates who have served ten years of a life sentence, the parole board must issue a decision and explanation in each case, and sentencing judges are prohibited from vetoing parole board decisions.

The Attorney General takes the opposite position, claiming the ruling does not apply retroactively-- and says he will be appealing the judge's order. The Michigan Supreme Court will address the issue when arguments are heard on three cases this spring. A controversial issue, the question regarding the retroactivity of the new law will presumably reach the Supreme Court in the future. The only thing clear for now is that minors can no longer be sentenced to life without parole.

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