Juvenile Life Sentences in Michigan: Harsh and Unjust Punishment?

Hope for Juvenile Life Sentences

In the summer of 2017, the former Detroit drug dealer nicknamed “White Boy Rick” was granted parole from prison. It took nearly 30 years, but the 10-member Michigan Parole Board voted unanimously to release him.

Richard Wershe was arrested at the age of 17 during the 1980s crack epidemic. 

Wershe had been serving life in prison with the possibility of parole for possession with intent to deliver over 650 grams of cocaine. He has time to serve in Florida for a separate stolen-car case, to which he pleaded guilty in 2006.

What about all of the other juvenile offenders serving life sentences?

Juvenile Life Sentences

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile life sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Michigan has been particularly slow to change. It still has the second highest number of lifers.

Generally, a life sentence means that a person, as a teenager, has committed first-degree murder. First-degree murder covers a whole range of crimes including:

  • Premeditated killing
  • Intentional or unintentional death during another felony
  • Aiding and abetting a premeditated killing or death which occurred during another felony

How the Laws Evolved

One of the reasons we have so many lifers is how the laws evolved.

Before 1988 only 17-year-olds were automatically treated as adults. Fifteen and 16-year-olds could be tried as an adult if a juvenile judge approved. No one younger than 15 was ever tried as an adult.

In October of 1988 through 1996, 15 and 16-year-olds were automatically waived to adult court where a judge had two options:

  • To give them mandatory life in adult prison
  • Or send them to a juvenile facility for release at 21.

After that, the number of juvenile lifers more than doubled.

After 1997, 14-year-olds could also be tried as adults. In addition, prosecutors can designate 14 to 16-year-olds to be tried “like” an adult in juvenile court and even request that those 13 and younger be treated in the same way.

Judges’ Options

Up until 2012, judges had three options:

  • Commit a minor to a juvenile facility until age 21
  • Sentence a juvenile as an adult to life without parole
  • Sentence a juvenile to a blended sentence, where he or she would serve at a juvenile facility until 21 and afterward have a judge determine whether to sentence him or her to mandatory life in prison.

In 2016, the Supreme Court actually required the law to be put in effect retroactively. This gave prosecutors 180 days to assess and make recommendations to the court for those offenders who should continue to serve life without parole and those they would recommend for new sentences, starting at 25 years.

Number of Inmates in Michigan Serving Life for Crimes Committed as Juveniles

More than 350 inmates are currently serving mandatory life in Michigan for crimes they committed as juveniles. County prosecutors have been pushing to keep life sentencing for more than 60% of the juvenile lifer cases.

In Oakland County, 44 out of 49 were requested. In Wayne County – which has the highest number – 63 out of the 144 were requested. According to Detroit Free Press, however,

“We have been working closely with SADO [the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office] to gather more information on the defendants in the life without parole cases,” Prosecutor Kym Worthy told the Free Press. “With more complete information it is highly likely that some of our recommendations will change. In all of these cases the defendant will have a resentencing hearing where the outcome will be determined by a judge.”

Takeaway

If you or a loved one has been affected by a juvenile mandatory life sentence, there is still hope. Call an experienced criminal defense attorney for a chance to have your sentence changed.

Call today