Each year in the United States, children as young as thirteen are sentenced to die in prison. No other country in the world locks up its young people for the rest of their natural lives for crimes committed before they can legally drive, join the military, vote, sign a contract, or quit school.
In Michigan, children as young as fourteen, who are charged with certain felonies, are tried and sentenced, as if they are the same as an adult, to our harshest punishment, life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to consider the child’s age, troubled environment or lack of maturity before sending them to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
To date, 371 young people in Michigan have been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison, without any opportunity to demonstrate rehabilitation and lack of risk to society. This includes more than one hundred youth who did not themselves commit a homicide but instead, were convicted for their role as a lookout or following the orders of adult co-defendants. Michigan has the second highest number of children serving this sentence in the United States.
In the 38-page report titled Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth, Second Chances 4 Youth explores the fiscal and human costs of juvenile life without parole sentences and the documented racial disparities found in the plea process. The findings rely on publicly available data produced by the Michigan Department of Corrections and survey responses from individuals originally charged with first-degree murder in Michigan for crimes committed as youth since 1975.
The report documents the many challenges youth face in the criminal justice system, including that:
- In the area of plea bargaining, there is a significant difference in the rate of pleas offered to adolescents based on the race of the victim.
- Juveniles are at a serious disadvantage in negotiating and understanding plea offers because of their immaturity, inexperience, and failure to realize the consequences or value of a plea offer.
- Attorneys who have represented youth convicted and sentenced to life without parole in Michigan have an abnormally high rate of attorney discipline from the State Bar of Michigan.