Pros & Cons: Juvenile Lifer LawPosted on June 12th, 2009 2 comments
Yesterday’s Detroit Free Press featured two opinion columns regarding Michigan’s juvenile lifer law. State Senator Liz Brater(D-Ann Arbor) has introduced a package of bills in the Michigan Senate (a similar, pared-down package has received hearings in the House) that would prohibit sentencing a juvenile to life without parole and allow those juveniles who were already sentenced to life in prison without parole to go before the Parole Board to have their case reviewed after 10 years. She writes a very well researched opinion piece for the Free Press in support of her bills.
She takes the position that when dealing with juvenile delinquents, courts should focus on rehabilitating minors. She writes, “According to National Institute of Mental Health studies, the brain of an adolescent continues to develop through age 25. The area governing reasoning, advanced thought and impulse control matures last, often causing youths to make decisions based on impulse and emotion, rather than logic. The acknowledgement of this difference in maturity, understanding and logic is what led us to have a juvenile justice system to begin with.”
She argues that elected prosecutors, who typically run on “tough on crime” platforms, are not in the best position to determine whether a child should be charged as an adult or as a minor because of the political considerations involved. She believes that this determination should be in the hands of the judge, a different elected official. There is some appeal to this argument. I have never seen a prosecutor use the words “soft” or “compassionate” in their campaign literature. However, they are elected (just like judges) by a constituency. Being tough on juvenile offenders may not be a reflection on the personal motivations of the prosecutor, but rather the will of the people.
Finally, Senator Brater argues that rehabilitation of minor offenders would be less costly than incarceration. The “saving taxpayer dollars” argument is rare for a Democrat. However, it is not entirely surprising. Democrats will raise the cost-savings banner when talking about releasing prisoners, cutting military spending or in opposition to the death penalty; but that is about it.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy presents the counter-point argument. She argues that the ability to sentence juveniles to life in prison is necessary to protect society and for the victims of these violent criminals. She also argues that parole boards are inappropriate to determine whether a juvenile offender should be released because they are unelected and therefore unaccountable to the people. Kym Worthy’s argument is not surprising. What is surprising is that it lacks the research of Sen. Brater’s piece.
All in all, I think the purpose of juvenile delinquency is to rehabilitate a minor. The statute even says so. Minors are not fully culpable for their actions. They are still growing, developing and learning. Kym Worthy is right: incarceration is about protecting the public from dangerous individuals. However, the public does not need protection from a juvenile offender who is rehabilitated into a fully productive citizen. Further, incarcerating minors along side seriously dangerous adult offenders will corrupt them into further criminal behavior. If we incarcerate minors, we will be simply creating a better class of criminal.
Make no mistake, I have represented hundreds of juvenile delinquents and consider some of them more dangerous than many adult offenders. However, I have to believe that children that are still maturing and developing reasoning, impuse control and decision-making ability should be rehabilitated, rather simply removed from society.
You can read Sen. Brater’s article here.
You can read Kym Worthy’s article here.
I should also point out that there is a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives (HR 2289 – Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009), which would require states to grant parole hearings for juvenile offenders who are serving a life sentence during their first 15 years of incarceration and every three years thereafter. Any state that did not comply would be denied some federal anti-crime funding. That bill is currently in hearings in committee.
© 2009, Melinda Deel. All rights reserved.