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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Judge: Juveniles sentenced to life must get 'fair, meaningful' chance at parole

by Robert Snell
The Detroit News

January 30, 2013
Detroit — Inmates sentenced to life in prison for murder as juveniles are eligible for parole and must receive a "fair and meaningful" chance at leaving prison, a federal judge said Wednesday.

The order from U.S. District Judge John Corbett O'Meara comes six months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles.

The order offers an opportunity at freedom for several inmates who challenged the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting the Michigan Parole Board from considering parole for juvenile lifers. The state has more than 350 such prisoners.

"I think this is both the right legal and moral decision," said Deborah LaBelle, the inmates' lead counsel. "We are pretty elated to be able to tell all of the individuals serving a hopeless sentence that they now have an opportunity for parole."

O'Meara said the state law is unconstitutional for inmates who received mandatory life sentences for first-degree murder when they were under the age of 18.

"As a result, plaintiffs will be eligible and considered for parole," O'Meara wrote. "It remains to be determined how that process will work and what procedures should be in place to ensure that plaintiffs are fairly considered for parole."

Attorney General Bill Schuette is considering appeal options, spokeswoman Joy Yearout said.

"He will continue to fight for crime victims and their families, who should not be forced to relive these horrific crimes at parole hearings," Yearout said.

The judge's order trumps a ruling last fall by the state appeals court, which said retroactivity would not apply for most people already behind bars.

He told the state attorney general and lawyers for inmates to propose a way to hold parole hearings. Those next steps will be litigated for months.

"If there was ever a legal rule that should — as a matter of law and morality — be given retroactive effect, it is the rule announced in Miller," the judge said, referring to the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama.

"To hold otherwise would allow the state to impose unconstitutional punishment on some persons but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice," he said.


Click here to view the court opinion

Click "play" below to listen to an audio version of Efren Paredes, Jr.'s response to the recent federal court opinion which held that Michigan prisoners who received life without parole sentences when they were juveniles are entitled to "fair and meaningful" parole opportunities.