The Supreme Court just gave juvenile lifers a shot at parole

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LANSING, MI – Nearly 350 prisoners in Michigan serving mandatory life sentences for murder or other violent acts committed as minors could now be eligible for parole under an opinion handed down Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 decision, the nation’s highest court said its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama that invalidated mandatory life sentences for juveniles as a form of cruel and unusual punishment applies retroactively.

The 22-page majority opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana was delivered Monday by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Antonin Scalia authored a dissenting opinion in the case and was joined by justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas. Thomas also authored a dissenting opinion.

MORE: Read the SCOTUS opinions

“Like other substantive rules, Miller is retroactive because it ‘necessarily carr[ies] a significant risk that a defendant’ – here, the vast majority of juvenile offenders – ‘faces a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him,'” the court said in the majority opinion. “… Miller’s conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution.”

The ruling opens the door to the possibility of parole for hundreds of prisoners in Michigan who will now be eligible for resentencing hearings.

“It’s a wonderful ruling,” said attorney Deborah LaBelle, whose Ann Arbor firm currently represents more than 100 juvenile lifers in Michigan. “A strong majority of the court, including the chief justice, ruled what we have been saying all along is the decent and moral and constitutionally correct thing to do, which is allow all of the youth which were given an unconstitutional sentence … the chance to show that they’re rehabilitated and can rejoin us.”

The Supreme Court ruling is a loss for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who had previously urged the high court to deny resentencing hearings for all juvenile lifers under Miller.

Schuette’s office has long contended that the resentencing hearings would unfairly re-traumatize victims’ families. Schuette filed a brief with the Supreme Court in August on behalf of Michigan and 15 other states that house juvenile lifers and will be affected by Monday’s ruling.

The court heard oral arguments in Montgomery v. Louisiana in October.

Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said Schuette and his team were reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision Monday, but did not offer further comment.

The Michigan Supreme Court considered the retroactivity of Miller in 2014 and ruled that the state was not obligated to resentence juvenile lifers.

That same year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law that allowed for juveniles convicted of violent crimes to still be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but judges can also consider several factors laid out in Miller and sentence them to a term of years in prison.

The 2014 law included a trigger for resentencing hearings if the U.S. Supreme Court determined that its decision in Miller should apply to juvenile lifers already behind bars.

Now, given Monday’s ruling, the state law says sentencing judges can again consider life without parole at the resentencing hearings or a minimum term of 25 to 40 years in prison and a maximum of at least 60 years.

The state law requires that prosecutors across the state, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision, provide a list of names of all juvenile lifers who are eligible for resentencing to the chief judge in their county. The law also requires that within the next six months, prosecutors file motions for resentencing in any cases in which they intend to ask a judge to impose a sentence of life without parole.

If a prosecutor does not file a motion for resentencing, a juvenile lifer would then be sentenced to a term of years that complies with the 2014 law signed by the governor.

Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said his review of his office’s records shows that at least eight juvenile lifers will be eligible for resentencing.

Adding a wrinkle to the entire process that is to come is a Michigan Court of Appeals opinion handed down in August that says juvenile lifers have a right to have a jury decide whether they should receive life without parole.

Getting said Monday he believes the Court of Appeals decision, which is being appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, would apply to the juvenile lifers in Kalamazoo County and across the state who are now eligible for resentencing following the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Based upon the decision today, it’s my intention to review every file, every case involving a juvenile sentence to life without parole and make a determination on whether we will be filing a motion with the court for a sentence of life without parole,” Getting said.

Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge Gary C. Giguere Jr. said it is possible, based on the Supreme Court’s decision, that the state may not have to hold resentencing hearings and instead will be able make juvenile lifers eligible for parole and put their fates in the hands of the state’s parole board.

In the majority opinion handed down by the Supreme Court, the justices said that giving Miller retroactive effect “does not require states to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.”

Instead, the court said states can remedy “a Miller violation” by allowing juvenile lifers to be considered for parole.”

“Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity – and who have since matured – will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eight Amendment,” the majority said.

“Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the states, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions. Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition – that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

Giguere said he believes the section of the Supreme Court decision addressing resentencing and parole “does create some ambiguity that will need to be cleared up” for states like Michigan.

Giguere said he believes that portion of the opinion may give the state and Schuette’s office “some leeway” on how they plan to approach complying with the Supreme Court’s decision.

“I think it’s going to give the executive (branch) more autonomy,” he said.

LaBelle said she and other attorneys are hopeful they will be able to open dialogues with prosecutors “about what is a reasonable way to approach this.”

“Many of these youths have served well beyond a time that is proportional to what they did,” LaBelle said. “Over a third of the youth, in fact, actually didn’t commit a homicide, so I think that we need to look at each one of them and give them a chance if they have shown rehabilitation – which many of them have done – to stop wasting the state’s money and come home.”

Rex Hall Jr. is a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette. You can reach him atrhall2@mlive.com. Follow him on Twitter.