Juvenile Lifers Stricken With COVID-19 in Michigan Prisons

More than half of Michigan juvenile lifers still wait for resentencing
More than half of Michigan juvenile lifers still wait for resentencing, as of August 2019. | Photo: Detroit Free Press

The following is an abridged version of the original article.

By Efrén Paredes, Jr

As Michigan leads the nation in the chilling number of COVID-19 deaths occurring inside its prison, 196 incarcerated people sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for crimes they were accused of committing when they were children (“juvenile lifers”) are in prisons waiting to receive new resentencing hearings.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional and ordered the resentencing of all 2,500 juvenile lifers affected nationwide. In Michigan 363 people were originally affected by the ruling.

The high court stated that juvenile offenders who are not “irreparably corrupt,” “incapable of change,” or do not “exhibit such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible” cannot receive a LWOP sentence again when they are resentenced. Those who do not fit this criteria are candidates to receive a term-of-year sentence making them eligible for release one day.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “Deciding that a juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society would require making a judgment that [s/he] is incorrigible — but incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth and for the same reason, rehabilitation could not justify that sentence.”

The court added, “Life without parole forswears the rehabilitative ideal. It reflects an irrevocable judgment about [an offender’s] value and place in society, at odds with a child’s capacity for change.” (Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2465 (2012))

Michigan is now shamefully home to the largest number of juvenile lifers in the nation. Thirty-seven states now either prohibit LWOP sentences for children or have not imposed the draconian sentence since 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the sentence for minors.

Eight years after the landmark ruling there are still 196 Michigan juvenile lifers waiting to be resentenced. Over 80 of them have already served at least twenty years behind bars and ten of them have served over 40 years. They are still awaiting resentencing hearings because prosecutors delayed the process by filing motions seeking LWOP sentences in each case nearly four years ago.

This means each person must receive an expensive mitigation hearing to determine whether or not they are candidates to receive a LWOP sentence replete with psychologists, brain science experts, mitigation experts, and other necessary expert witnesses at taxpayer expense. The total costs, including attorney fees and court costs, will likely exceed $30,000 for each person. Some have already cost as high as $70,000.

It will cost the state a conservative estimated total of $5.7 million to conduct all the mitigation and resentencing hearings. And, each year juvenile lifers remain imprisoned, taxpayers are paying an additional $30,000 annual cost of incarceration per person. All this is occurring in the midst of the highest unemployment rate and worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The first 190 juvenile lifers who were resentenced over the past eight years received an average sentence of 30 years. Of that number over 100 of them have been released and none have reoffended. Their zero percent recidivism rate is currently the lowest of any demographic released by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Parole Board.

The average overall recidivism rate for offenders in Michigan is currently 29%, according to the MDOC. The national average recidivism rate is closer to 60%.

COVID-19 strikes juvenile lifers

In recent months several juvenile lifers have contracted COVID-19 awaiting their resentencing hearings. One of them was resentenced and died in April awaiting his release which would have occurred this month. Six other juvenile lifers have also died in custody waiting for their resentencing hearings over the past eight years previous to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Research suggests that more than 90% of justice-involved youth will no longer engage in criminal behavior by the time they reach their mid-20s.” (Elizabeth Scott & Laurence Steinberg, “Rethinking Juvenile Justice” 38 (2008))

These individuals are often identified as adolescent-limited offenders, whose antisocial behavior typically starts in adolescence and declines as they mature into adulthood. Thus, less than 10% of justice-involved youth will continue to engage in criminal behavior past their mid-20s.

In the first ever national survey of victims’ views on safety and justice titled “Crime Survivors Speak,” published in 2016 by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the report found that 61% of victims prefer “shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation to prison sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible.”

The report also found that for every victim who prefers the criminal justice system focus on punishment there are two victims who prefer its focus on rehabilitation, and 89% of victims prefer more investment in school and education to more investments in prisons and jails.

Each person is a culmination of their lived experiences and decisions. They are not defined by any one event, nor by their best or worst choice in life. The problem is that many prosecutors become obsessed with people’s crimes and their cynicism prevents them from acknowledging their inherent dignity and redemptive qualities.

People learn, they grow, and they change. Everyone is a work in progress. No one is the same person in their 40’s and 50’s that they were in their teens. No one is the same person they were when they committed their crime even a year later. To believe that they are defies reason and common sense.

People have asked me why I believe juvenile lifers have managed to maintain a zero percent recidivism rate, and what sets them apart from other incarcerated people. The reality is that before any of them were released they spent decades behind bars haunted by a death-by-incarceration sentence. They opened their eyes every morning feeling the enormous gravity of the sentence they were serving and went to bed each night with the frightening reminder that they may never again experience living life as a free person in society.

The trauma of incarceration and countless daunting experiences since they were kids is forever seared into their memories. The women and men who have been tormented by these events, and now given one chance to experience freedom for the first time in their adult lives, is not something they will throw away.

These individuals will work diligently to be law-abiding citizens and do the jobs that many others are unwilling to do. They will also volunteer to help people and learn new experiences

Many juvenile lifers who are released from prison could be a tremendous asset to judges and courts to mentor troubled youth and make their communities safer. Young people are more inclined to listen to — and be deterred from a life of crime — by those who understand them and have been in their shoes before than people who haven’t.

The National Academies of Sciences summarized the research on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and found that “long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure.” (National Research Council, “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences” (2014)

The online Change.org petition, “Support Michigan Prison Reform,” contains a 10-Point Michigan Prison Reform Platform that has generated over 6,000 signatures and continues to rise daily. The petition includes a proposed reform related to juveniles serving mandatory LWOP sentences which calls on lawmakers to:

“Abolish life-without-parole sentences for all juvenile offenders or, alternatively, grant the Parole Board jurisdiction over prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles, and make them eligible for meaningful parole consideration at least every two years after they have served 20 years. She/he would be parole eligible after serving 15 years if convicted of the lesser offense of aiding and abetting, and not as being the principal perpetrator of the crime.”

The Support Michigan Prison Reform petition is available at http://Bitly.com/MichPR.

The Convention On the Rights of the Child, the world’s most widely supported international treaty, provides that imprisonment be used only as a “measure of last resort” for juvenile offenders, and “for the shortest appropriate time.”

Over 100 organizations, professional associations, and faith-based groups (or houses of worship) have also expressed support to end the pernicious practice of sentencing children to LWOP sentences. Supporters include the American Correctional Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, National Black Police Association, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name a few. A complete list of supporters is available at http://FairSentencingOfYouth.org/Official-Supporters.

To date over 3,300 incarcerated people in Michigan prisons have contracted COVID-19 and 59 of them have died. At the prison I am housed nearly 800 incarcerated people have contracted the virus and 22 people have died.

Michigan juvenile lifers should not still be incarcerated where they are unable to social distance in crowded dining halls and housing units, and are being forced to risk their lives each day trying to avoid contracting deadly diseases like COVID-19.

There has been a 700% surge in strokes in men my age due to COVID-19, and men have been found to be nearly twice as high as women to become infected with the virus in some geographical areas. There is also new evidence that people living and working in densely populated spaces are becoming re-infected with COVID-19 after they have recovered.

Many juvenile lifers will continue being subjected to tremendous risk of dying or experiencing irreversible neurological, brain, kidney, heart, or lung damage, and re-contracting the COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed for months to come if they remain incarcerated.

According to Tarika Daftary-Kapur, Ph.D. and Tina M. Zottoli, Ph.D., “In terms of risk to public safety, juvenile lifers can be considered low-impact releases.” (“Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience,” 10. Montclair State University: 2020).

Sentencing bodies can dismiss meritless motions filed by prosecutors who are seeking LWOP sentences against juvenile lifers being resentenced and proceed to resentence the cases before them to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars, precious judicial resources, and time.

They can also grant personal recognizance bonds to juvenile lifers while they await their resentencing hearings and place them on GPS tethers. They would still remain under a form of incarceration with their families or friends, only rather than being held in vectors of COVID-19 transmission, they would have a humane opportunity to social distance and protect themselves from contracting the deadly disease.

Alternatively, Governor Gretchen Whitmer also has an opportunity to resolve the eight-year gridlock that juvenile lifers have been unfairly and cruelly subjected to by commuting the sentences of each person to a 25-year minimum sentence, which would conform with MCL 769.25a. The maximum end of the sentence is a 60-year mandatory term.

If the Governor commuted these sentences not a single person would be released. It would only grant the Parole Board jurisdiction to begin reviewing the cases after they have served 25 years and give the Parole Board the authority to release them after considering a number of factors.

The Governor could also ask Attorney General Nessel to take the cases over and withdraw the motions seeking LWOP sentences submitted by prosecutors, and allow judges to impose new sentences. She is authorized to do this because prosecutors have clearly demonstrated the inability to be fair and unbiased, and have abused their authority for years.

In either event the Parole Board would use its wealth of resources to determine whether or not each person could be safely returned back into the community as it does for thousands of people it releases each year. Anyone that does not fit that criteria could remain incarcerated for up to the 60-year maximum term.

Based on the overwhelming success juvenile lifers have had who have been released, commuting the sentences of juvenile lifers would be an evidence-based, data-driven safe decision by the Governor. It would also be economically sound and morally correct.

We would be wise to put into practice the words of Aryn Siler, author of “Buried Alive,” 17 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 293 (2013), who urges us to reject the dark fatalism of throwing away the key on juvenile offenders and replace it with rehabilitation rather than “a long, drawn out, meaningless, tortuous, and hopeless existence unto death.”

Efrén Paredes, Jr. is a blogger, thought leader, and social justice changemaker. He has been featured in various TV news, radio show, and podcast interviews to discuss the COVID-19 crisis in Michigan prisons. His interviews and ongoing series about this and other social justice issues can be read at http://fb.com/Free.Efren.

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