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Monday, July 25, 2016

Berrien County Prosecutor Betrays Rule of Law in Juvenile Lifer Cases

Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that imposing mandatory life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The high court ordered the resentencing of the 2,500 prisoners affected nationwide. 

Michigan law provides that these prisoners, referred to as "juvenile lifers," must receive mitigation hearings as part of the resentencing process to consider several factors before receiving a new sentence. These factors were delineated in a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), and are referred to as the "Miller factors."

In Michigan, when being resentenced, juvenile lifers can receive a term of years or life without parole. Term of year sentencing guidelines are a 25- to 40-year minimum sentence, with a maximum sentence of 60 years. A life without parole sentence may only be imposed as a maximum punishment in cases which the U.S. Supreme Court has made abundantly clear, for "the truly rare juvenile" who is "irreparably corrupt--meaning incapable of rehabilitation for the remainder of his or her life." (People v. Hyatt, Mich. App. No. 325741, (p. 3)).

To drive home its underscoring of how rare life without parole sentences for juveniles should be, the Miller court used the words "rare" or "rarest" six times in its ruling.

The court also held that, "The distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentence on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes." Thus, when it comes to sentencing a juvenile, concern must be given to the offender's youth and its attendant characteristics.

The Miller court went on to say that because of a juvenile's "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon." The court further declared that in the "vast majority" of cases, such a sentence will be disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.

Michigan prosecutors had until late-July 2016 to announce which cases they would seek life without parole sentences for again for the juvenile lifers being resentenced in their respective counties. On the eve of the deadline Berrien County Prosecutor, Michael Sepic, announced he would pursue the extreme sentence for all 10 prisoners from that county--nearly all prisoners of color. The list includes the case of Efren Paredes, Jr.

Ironically, the same day Sepic announced his decision the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a ruling further clarifying what sentencing judges must consider at resentencing hearings in the case of People v. Hyatt. In its ruling the court cautioned judges that prosecutors seeking a life without parole sentence under MCL 769.25(2) and the resultant Miller [mitigation] hearing, is not to be treated as a perfunctory exercise that will authorize the imposition of a life without parole sentence. According to the court, "Such an approach defies what was first announcd in Miller and made even clearer in Montgomery: life without parole is to be imposed on juvenile offenders in only the rarest of cases."

The Miller and Hyatt courts both recognized that it 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 the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. In an amicus brief filed in the Miller case the American Psychology Association posited that the "positive predicative power of juvenile psychotherapy assessments ... remains poor."

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane M. Beckering contends that a sentencing court is, to a large degree "guessing, based on information that is widely recognized as unreliable given the malleability of a juvenile's still-developing brain, whether the juvenile is capable of reform."

Justice Beckering said the question we have to ask ourselves is: "If the imposition of the harshest possible penalty available under the law cannot be done with any degree of reliability given the offender being a minor about whom the court must predict his or her entire future, how can the sentence not be rendered either cruel due to guesswork or unusually unfair? ... How could such a speculative, roll-of-the-dice approach to meting out the most serious punishing on a group of offenders who are categorically less culpable not be cruel or unusual?"

The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled in the case of State v. Sweet, 879 N.W.2d 811 (2016), that "the enterprise of identifying which juvenile offenders are irretrievable at the time of trial is simply too speculative and likely impossible ... The risk of error in determining whether a life without parole sentence is proportionate is unacceptably high."

It continued, "We are asking the sentencer to do the impossible, namely to determine whether the offender is 'irretrievably corrupt' at a time when even trained professionals with years of clinical experience would not attempt to make such a determination."

One is forced to wonder about Sepic's bizarre obsession with imposing extreme sentences on juveniles in light of all that science and the medical community have taught us the past three decades about adolescent brain development. More troubling is what Sepic's own obstinance and deviant behavior reflects about other decisions he is making in his office that affect the public.

It is one thing to seek justice. It is another altogether for a prosecutor to eclipse his judgment and sensibilities with the darkness of his soul when considering the futures of young people.

Public servants who refuse to acknowledge the growth potential or redemptive qualities in young people, and harbor such deep hatred toward them, should not be in positions to abuse their authority in such a reckless and malicious way.

(To learn more about the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. please visit and "Like" the page to express support.)