DETROIT - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan have filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were minors. The lawsuit charges that a Michigan sentencing scheme that denies the now-adult plaintiffs an opportunity for parole and a fair hearing to demonstrate their growth, maturity and rehabilitation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates their constitutional rights.
"These life without parole sentences ignore the very real differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances," said Deborah Labelle, attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. "As a society, we believe children do not have the capacity to handle adult responsibilities, so we don't allow them to use alcohol, join the Army, serve on a jury or vote - yet we sentence them to the harshest punishment we have in this state - to die in adult prisons."
Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole, and Michigan incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger. Currently, there are 350 individuals serving such mandatory life sentences in Michigan. This includes more than 100 individuals who were sentenced to life without parole who were present or committed a felony when a homicide was committed by someone else.
"Sentencing children to spend the rest of their lives in prison without giving them some opportunity for parole is unfair, unconstitutional and un-American, and it completely ignores the human potential - especially in children - for rehabilitation," said Steven Watt, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. "In America, we should not be locking children up and throwing away the key without affording them a second chance."
The ACLU's complaint asks the court to declare that denying children a meaningful opportunity for parole violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. It also alleges violations of the plaintiffs' rights under international law and treaties.
Michigan's laws run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court's admonitions that children must be treated differently in our criminal justice system. In May, the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide to life in prison without any chance of parole. In 2005, the Court ruled similarly in Roper v. Simmons that executing juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. Both decisions recognized that juveniles bear less responsibility for their actions than adults and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation, and that children should not be punished with the harshest sentence that can be imposed on adults.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan, Patricia Caruso, Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and Barbara Sampson, Chair of the Michigan Parole Board.
In addition to LaBelle and Watt, the plaintiffs are represented by Vanita Gupta, Robin Dahlberg, Dennis Parker and Jay Rorty of the national ACLU, Michael J. Steinberg, Dan Korobkin and Kary L. Moss of the ACLU of Michigan and Ronald Reosti.