Wednesday, September 13, 2017
by Efren Paredes, Jr.
Attorneys for an Idaho prisoner recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a national ban on life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will also hear oral arguments September 13, 2017 in Hill v. Snyder, a Michigan case seeking the same ban, among other issues.
These appeals are proceeding while several Michigan prosecutors continue delaying resentencing hearings for dozens of prisoners who received LWOP sentences when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers"). Many of the prisoners have languished behind bars for decades as 192 civilized nations in the world have abandoned the pernicious practice of condemning juveniles to die in prison.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of the nation's 2,500 prisoners affected by the ruling. Prosecutors from several states ignored the landmark decision, including Michigan, claiming that it was not retroactive and did not apply to cases that had previously exhausted the direct appeal process.
The high court subsequently settled the issue in 2016 making it abundantly clear that its previous ruling four years earlier is indeed retroactive. The court added that upon resentencing juvenile lifers, only prisoners who a sentencing court could establish are "incapable of change" the remainder of their lives can receive LWOP sentences, and that the extreme sentence must become "rare" and "uncommon."
Michigan is home to the second largest population of juvenile lifers in the nation. Prior to 2016 there were 363 prisoners serving the draconian sentence. Seventy percent of them are people of color; a portrait of savage inequality. Since the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling only 91 prisoners have been resentenced. Six prisoners died during the four year wait and never had the opportunity to be resentenced or given serious parole consideration.
Prosecutors across the state are seeking LWOP sentences again for 247 juvenile lifers, or 68% of them, in defiance of the high court ruling. Prosecutors from the counties of Berrien, Gennesee, Macomb, Oakland, Saginaw, and Wayne are responsible for seeking LWOP sentences for over 100 of those prisoners.
In their August 10, 2017 Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court attorneys for Idaho juvenile lifer Sarah Marie Johnson argue that states are rapidly prohibiting juvenile LWOP sentences. They note that nineteen states and the District of Columbia currently prohibit juvenile LWOP sentences.
Prior to the high court's 2012 decision banning mandatory juvenile LWOP sentences only four states prohibited the practice. In 20 states every juvenile offender has a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate to a parole board or judge that s/he has rehabilitated themself in prison and should be eligible for release consideration.
In addition to the 20 jurisdictions that have formally abandoned juvenile LWOP sentencing six states have no individuals serving juvenile LWOP sentences. Seven more states have five or fewer individuals serving the draconian sentence. According to the Johnson brief, "In total, 33 jurisdictions are either abolitionist, or functionally so."
Earlier this year the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held, "For a sentence of [LWOP] to be proportional as applied to a juvenile murderer, the sentencing court must first find, based on competent evidence, that the offender is entirely unable to change."
They added, "It must find that there is no possibility that the offender could be rehabilitated at any point later in his life, no matter how much time he spends in prison and regardless of the amount of therapeutic interventions he receives, and that the crime committed reflects the juveniles true and unchangeable personality and character." (Commonwealth v. Batts, No. 45 MAP 2016, 2017 WL 2735411 (Pa. June 26, 2017))
The Johnson petition to the high court argues that, "While most jurisdictions are following the letter and spirit of this court's juvenile jurisprudence, a handful persists in pursuing the harshest penalties against large numbers of juvenile offenders." They specifically characterized Michigan and Louisiana as being among "a handful of extreme outliers that are flouting the [U.S. Supreme] Court's dictate to limit JLWOP to the rare juvenile offender."
In other words, the abuse of authority and other malfeasance of Michigan's rogue prosecutors is being used as examples by other states to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to end the deplorable practice of sentencing juveniles to die in prison.
Johnson's attorneys have to establish that either the national trend supports that sentencing juveniles to die in prison is no longer acceptable among most states or that the standards of decency regarding this matter have evolved. As they state:
"A substantial majority of states have abandoned JLWOP in law and practice, and others have acted to narrow its application. Today, the use of JLWOP is carried on by a handful of prosecutors in a shrinking number of counties and states. ... [S]entencing children to die in prison is cruel and unusual [which violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution]."
If the U.S. Supreme Court accepts the Johnson petition numerous other supporting amicus (i.e., friend of the court) briefs are likely to be filed from various groups and organizations across the country. This frequently occurs in cases that could impact many states or people, or become a landmark decision.
A favorable ruling by the high court would result in a national ban of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. Prosecutors who have created inordinate sentencing delays for juvenile lifers who have not yet been resentenced would be precluded from seeking LWOP sentences against them again and any prisoner currently serving the sentence would be eligible for a term-of-year sentence.
Many people contend that prosecutors intentionally orchestrated creating the conditions for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a categorical ban on LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. Doing so would save them time and resources by making it unnecessary to conduct legitimate reviews of each individual case, and deciding whether or not prisoners in their jurisdictions are truly eligible for a LWOP sentence.
According to a source employed in the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office who asked not to be named, "Prosecutors always say it's about victims but it's not. They use victims to advance their tough on crime policy but ignore them when it can make them appear soft on crime."
The person added, "There are instances where victims have forgiven perpetrators, believe in giving them a second chance, or a reduction in time, and prosecutors ignore their wishes. Ultimately this is about prosecutors protecting their jobs and salvaging their reputations."
While this cruel drama has played out prosecutors have vociferously demonized juvenile offenders and expressed their obsession with pursuing LWOP sentences again when resentencing juvenile lifers. They know the nation is on the cusp of ending the deplorable practice once and for all. Despite this reality they continue manipulating the public and media in their relentless thirst for reelection.
Whatever the motivations of these prosecutors, the winding labrynth of justice the public is witnessing juvenile lifers be subjected to is but one chilling example that demonstrates why the U.S. Supreme Court provides a checks and balances to lower courts, judges, prosecutors, and legislatures.
Absent their oversight some would continue ignoring the evolving standards of decency of a civilized society, and leave us trapped in the tombs of yesterday's thinking. Thankfully the high court has frequently reminded us through its rulings that we can't always use antiquated approaches to solve modern day problems.
The consensus among many of the nation's legal scholars is that in the coming months the U.S. Supreme Court will very likely strike down the imposition of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders nationwide. If a favorable decision isn't reached in the Idaho case the likelihood it will occur in a similar case is growing increasingly high each day.
Defiant prosecutors have made it possible.
(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner who is a social justice advocate, blogger and weekly guest on the Elena Herrada Show on Detroit Superstation AM 910 Sunday mornings during the 7 am to 8 am hour. You can learn more about Efren and his latest writings by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren or www.TinyURL.com/Efren1016.)
Posted by Necalli Ollin