LDF Calls for End to Life Without Parole Sentences for Youth

LDF, along with local counsel Mitra Jafary-Hariri of the Michigan-based law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and CohnLLP, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in three cases challenging juvenile life without parole sentencing in the state of Michigan. The Michigan Supreme Court cases, People v. Carp, People v. Eliason, and People v. Davis, will determine the fate of 360 or more youth serving life without parole sentences in the state, and have a national impact on the sentencing of youth in the adult system. Faulty stereotypes that equate African-American youth and other youth of color with criminality—which came to prominence in the late-1980s and mid-1990s—dramatically shifted the focus of juvenile justice systems nationwide from rehabilitation to punishment, leading to disproportionately harsh consequences for children, like life without parole sentences.

The three cases before the Michigan Supreme Court will have national import as many states continue to grapple with the United States Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs (“Miller/Jackson”) that banned mandatory life without parole sentences for children. Specifically, Carp will address Miller/Jackson’s retroactive application to youth currently serving life without parole sentences. Meanwhile, Eliason concerns the appropriate implementation of the Miller/Jackson decision in Michigan. Finally, Davis will determine whether life without parole should ever be a sentencing option for a youth involved as an accomplice to a homicide offense.

“The mythology around youth, race, and criminality helped to shape unduly harsh sentencing regimes for children across the country and led to life without parole sentences for youth,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “Such sentences fail to acknowledge what common sense, science, and the United States Supreme Court have made clear: that children are less culpable than adults and that their sentences should reflect that reality.”

Evidence marshaled by LDF demonstrates that stereotypes about race and crime were particularly harmful in Michigan, which in 1988 and 1996 put into place some of the nation’s toughest sentencing laws for juveniles in the adult system, leading to mandatory life without parole sentences for children as young as age 14. Michigan currently has the second-largest population of youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in the entire country. Youth of color, who comprise only 29% of Michigan’s youth population but represent 73% of those serving juvenile life without parole, have felt the disproportionate burden of these laws since their inception.

“We must all be vigilant in our efforts to ensure that race does not play an improper role in the administration of justice, and that is especially true for our nation’s children,” said Jin Hee Lee, Senior Counsel at LDF. “Abolishing juvenile life without parole sentences, which were borne from the racially-charged, moral panic around misguided fears of juvenile crime, is an important part of those efforts.”