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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Wyo. Court Looks to Mich. for Guidance on Juvenile Lifers

by Necalli Ollin

The Wyoming Supreme Court recently handed down an important ruling in the case of Davis v. Wyoming regarding prisoners who received life without parole (LWOP) sentences when they were juveniles ("juvenile lifers"). In its ruling the court detailed how thorough mitigation hearings should become moving forward. They also strongly urged sentencing courts not to repeat the mistakes of the past by arbitrarily meting out LWOP sentences against youthful offenders.

The court referenced the 2016 Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in People v. Hyatt, 316 Mich. App. 368, seven times to support the reasoning for their decision. This is significant because dozens of Michigan juvenile lifers have been awaiting a decision by the Michigan Supreme Court so they can be resentenced. The court will rule whether a judge or jury decides the sentencing fate of juvenile lifers. To date only about 115 of Michigan's 363 juvenile lifers have been resentenced to term-of-year sentences ranging from 25- to 40-year minimums. The other remaining 247 cases await resentencing.

In a 2012 landmark ruling the U.S. Supreme Court remarked in the case of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. The high court ordered all the affected 2,500 cases across the nation to be resentenced and made it abundantly clear that instances of juveniles receiving LWOP must become "rare" and "uncommon," and only reserved for prisoners who are incapable of change the remainder of their lives. It is an enterprise the Wyoming Supreme Court recently stated "is difficult, if not impossible" to determine.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "Deciding that a juvenile offender will forever be a danger to society would require making a judgment that [he] is incorrigible -- but incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth and for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence. Life without parole foreswears the rehabilitative ideal. It reflects an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society, at odds with a child's capacity for change." (Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2465)

Several Michigan prosecutors have rejected the stern rebuke by the high court replacing the court's ruling with their own narrow, myopic, and misguided views. They have also politicized and stalled resentencing hearings for the remaining 240 juvenile cases awaiting hearings since 2012 by pursuing unwarranted LWOP sentences against them. This makes the Michigan Supreme Court's forthcoming ruling about juvenile lifers all the more important.

One instance of a juvenile lifer awaiting a resentencing hearing who is not deserving of a LWOP sentence is Efren Paredes, Jr., a 45-year-old Latino who has been incarcerated since age 15. He was convicted for the 1989 murder and robbery of a grocery store manager in St. Joseph, Michigan, and sentenced to LWOP. He had no previous criminal record and was a high school honor student at the time of his arrest. Three of his co-defendants received considerable less time than he did. Two were released 13 years ago and one received a six-month sentence. All three co-defendants were older than Paredes at the time.

A review of Paredes' life during his incarceration reveals a catalog of impressive accomplishments and dozens of examples of his capacity for change. He helped lead a successful campaign to create an indigenous charter middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), has become a Literary Braille Transcriber certified by the U.S. Library of Congress, and a mentor to other prisoners and students outside of prison. He has also received letters of commendation from career Michigan Department of Corrections professionals about his positive attitude and leadership. In 2016 LATINA magazine named him one of four Latina/o prisoners in the nation deserving of clemency.

Though Paredes presents compelling evidence of a juvenile offender deserving a term-of-year sentence and the opportunity to become a productive member of society once again, the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office has pursued a LWOP sentence against him. His case is only one among the scores of egregious examples of injustice occurring in juvenile lifer cases across the state. Additional information about the Paredes case is available at An online petition expressing support for his release is also available at

There is little doubt that members of the court have seen repeated instances of clear and convincing evidence of how far Michigan prosecutors have strayed from U.S. Supreme Court rulings about the treatment of juvenile lifers over the past several years. Prosecutors have demonstrated their refusal to follow the rule of law even when it is unequivocal and absent ambiguity. The court now has a historic opportunity to end their abuse of authority and flagrant violations of the U.S. Constitution by abolishing LWOP for Michigan juvenile lifers altogether.

The trend of the nation continues to move in the direction of abandoning the pernicious practice of condemning children to die in prison. Currently less than half the states in the nation are imposing LWOP sentences on juveniles, and states are increasingly legislating an end to these deplorable sentences. Their actions are a symbol of the evolving standards of decency of a civilized society. It is a trend that is making its way to the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court and will eventually result in abolishment of the sentence altogether.
Allowing prosecutors to continue hijacking the resentencing process could result in potentially repeating the resentencing of hundreds of juvenile lifers at least two more times between now and the time the U.S. Supreme Court issues a total ban on juvenile LWOP sentences. It will also result in each case being appealed and creating unnecessary work for our appellate courts.

Since the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders the Michigan Court of Appeals has reversed every case in which a juvenile lifer has been resentenced to a LWOP sentence. This is the same outcome that will potentially unfold in hundreds more cases, creating a costly burden to taxpayers and wasting valuable judicial time and resources, if allowed to remain unchecked.

Rendering any ruling other than a total ban on LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders will be impotent to reign in the rogue actions of obstinate prosecutors. They have already demonstrated a blatant disregard to adhere to rulings of the highest court in the nation and a willingness to undermine them with impunity. It is a clear message to the Michigan Supreme Court that anything short of abolishing juvenile LWOP sentences will result in prosecutors impugning the integrity of the court and demonstrating contempt for their ruling as well.

The Michigan Supreme Court must boldly exercise its stewardship if it intends to prevent prosecutors from feeling they are above the law by continually using juvenile lifer resentencing hearings as a playground for political gamesmanship.

                                                                                                 * * * *

The following are excerpts from the recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling in Davis v. Wyoming, 2018 WY 40 (Wyo. 2018):

"We recognize that the task of determining whether a juvenile is permanently incorrigible is difficult, if not impossible. The Roper Court remarked, '[i]t is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.' (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. at 573, 125 S. Ct. at 1197 (2005) (citing Laurence Steinberg & Elizabeth Scott, "Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence," 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014-16 (2003)). 'If this determination is difficult for even trained psychologists, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge our concerns about sentencing courts -- or reviewing courts for that matter -- accurately assessing, or in essence forecasting, whether an individual who committed a crime while still a minor is and will remain irreparably corrupt for the rest of his or her life and on the basis of that assessment accurately meting out a proportionate sentence.' (People v. Hyatt, 891 N.W.2d 549, 573-74 (Mich. App. 2016)), appeal denied, (People v. Williams, 888 N.W.2d 64 (Mich. 2016))." (Paragraph 35)

"The Supreme Court made clear that a sentencing court must determine that a juvenile is irreparably corrupt or permanently incorrigible prior to imposing a sentence of life without parole: 'Even if a court considers a child's age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects 'unfortunate yet transient immaturity.' (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. at 734 (2016) (quoting Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. at 479-80, 132 S. Ct. at 2469 (2012)) (quoting Roper, 543 U.S. at 573, 125 S. Ct. at 1197))." (Paragraph 38)

"A sentencing court must begin its analysis with the premise that in all but the rarest of circumstances, a life-without-parole (or the functional equivalent thereof) sentence will likely be disproportionate for the juvenile before it. (See Hyatt, 891 N.W.2d at 574) ('A sentencing court must operate under the understanding that life without parole is, more often than not, not just inappropriate, but a violation of the juvenile's constitutional rights.') ... '[T]he vast majority of adolescents change as they age." (Commonwealth v. Batts, 163 A.3d at 452 (Pa. 2017))." (Paragraph 44)

'[M]inimal risk is associated with an erroneous decision in favor of the juvenile: sentencing the juvenile to a term of years with the possibility of parole when that juvenile is one of the rare individuals incapable of rehabilitation would simply mean that, while eligible for parole, the unrehabilitated juvenile would likely never obtain release on parole and would spend the rest of his life in prison." (Paragraph 49)

"'To protect youthful offenders from erroneous decisions that foreclose their ability to ever be released from prison, the Supreme Court therefore held that a sentence of life without parole is disproportionate and illegal for a juvenile offender unless that defendant 'exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.' (Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 733 (citing Miller, 567 U.S. at 479-80, 132 S. Ct. 2455))[.]' Batts, 163 A.3d at 455 (emphasis in original)." (Paragraph 50)

"[S]ee also (State v. Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 557 (Iowa 2015)) ('We must be cognizant of the fact that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a juvenile is the equivalent of the death penalty for juveniles.')" (Paragraph 68)

"Miller contains no suggestion that a seventeen-year-old is more deserving of adult punishment than a sixteen-year-old. Rather, Miller recognized that 'youth is more than a chronological fact' and is 'itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weight.' (Miller, 567 U.S. at 476, 132 S. Ct. at 2467 (citing Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 115, 116, 102 S. Ct. 869, 877, 878, 71 L.Ed.2d 1 (1982))." (Paragraph 76)

"The nature of the crime alone will generally be insufficient to support a conclusion that a juvenile is irreparably depraved. ... '[T]he fact that a vile offense occurred is not enough, by itself, to warrant imposition of a life-without-parole sentence. The court must undertake a searching inquiry into the particular juvenile, as well as the particular offense, and make the admittedly difficult decision of determining whether this is the truly rare juvenile for whom life without parole is constitutionally proportionate as compared to the more common and constitutionally protected juvenile whose conduct was due to transient immaturity for the reasons addressed by our United States Supreme Court.' (Hyatt, 891 N.W.2d at 575); see also (Adams v. Alabama, 136 S. Ct. 1796, 1800, 195 L.Ed.2d 251 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., concurring, joined by Ginsburg, J.) (referring to the 'Court's repeated exhortation that the gruesomeness of a crime is not sufficient to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is beyond redemption')); (People v. Padilla 209 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 221 (Cal. App. 2016)). Miller recognized that none of the characteristics that distinguish a child from an adult are 'crime-specific.' (Miller, 567 U.S. at 473, 132 S. Ct. at 2465)." (Paragraph 79)

"The district court also failed to recognized that 'peer influence can play a more subtle role in adolescent behavior, as when teenagers engage in behavior that they think will win peer approval ... or simply encourage one another through group interaction.' (Elizabeth Scott et al., "Juvenile Sentencing Reform in a Constitutional Framework," 88 Temp. L. Rev. 675, 699 (2016))" (Paragraph 81)

"Most juveniles will outgrow the signature qualities of youth by the time their brain development is complete. (See Scott, supra, 88 Temp. L. Rev. at 700). Juveniles are more likely to change with available treatment. Id. at 701. And, the seriousness of their crime does not alter these propositions. Id. at 700." (Paragraph 91)

"A life-without-parole sentence 'means denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of [the convict], he will remain in prison for the rest of his days.' (Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. at 70, 130 S. Ct. at 2027 (2010) (quoting Naovarath v. State, 779 P.2d 944, 945 (Nev. 1989))." (Paragraph 94)

"Miller and Montgomery 'make clear that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is more than a simple consideration of a set of factors.' (Hyatt, 891 N.W.2d at 579). Montgomery establishes a stringent standard whereby a juvenile offender cannot be sentenced to life without parole unless the sentencing court determines, based upon its analysis of the Miller factors, that the juvenile is one of the truly rare individuals incapable of reform." (Paragraph 104)

"[T]he district court abused its discretion by failing to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility based upon its analysis of all the Miller factors. When the Miller factors are not properly considered and weighed and when there is no finding of permanent incorrigibility, or when a finding of permanent incorrigibility is not supported by the Miller factors, the resulting sentence violates the Eighth Amendment." (Paragraph 106)