In four decisions last week, the Michigan Supreme Court held that sentencing courts must consider how youth up to age 19 are constitutionally different from adult offenders for purposes of sentencing—and not just when they are subject to a life-without-parole sentence. Because of their “diminished culpability and increased prospects for reform,” the court explained, children are ineligible for the most severe punishment unless the prosecution proves otherwise by clear and convincing evidence.
Life Without Parole Is Presumptively Disproportionate for Children
A decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children under 18, holding that life without parole is an unconstitutionally excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect “transient immaturity.”
The Court in 2016 reiterated that life without parole “is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children” and must be reserved only for those “whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.”
In response, Michigan lawmakers enacted a new statute that eliminates mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. Under that law, if a child is convicted of certain offenses, the prosecutor may file a motion seeking to have them sentenced to life without parole.
Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court in People v. Taylor held that this law established “a rebuttable presumption against the imposition of juvenile LWOP sentences in Michigan.”
So when a sentencing court considers a prosecutor’s motion to sentence a child to die in prison, the court held, it must “start from the premise that the juvenile defendant before them, like most juveniles, has engaged in criminality because of transient immaturity, not irreparable corruption” and cannot, therefore, be sentenced to die in prison.
It is the “prosecutor’s burden to overcome the presumption that LWOP is disproportionate” by “demonstrating facts that support their extraordinary request” to sentence a child to life without parole. The prosecutor “must prove facts and circumstances that rebut the presumption against LWOP by the well-known standard of clear and convincing evidence.”
If the prosecution fails to meet this burden, the court must impose a statutory term of years.
Michigan’s Constitution Bars Automatic Life Without Parole for 18-Year-Olds
In People v. Parks, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the same individualized sentencing procedure outlined in Taylor applies to 18-year-olds under the Michigan Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment.
The court applied the reasoning of Miller to the 18-year-old defendants in the combined cases and found that late adolescent “brains are far more similar to juvenile brains . . . than to the brains of fully matured adults.” Like those of younger children, 18-year-olds’ brains “transform as they age, allowing them to reform into persons who are more likely to be capable of making more thoughtful and rational decisions.” The court found that “18-year-olds, much like their juvenile counterparts, are generally capable of significant change” and rehabilitation. It concluded:
Because of the dynamic neurological changes that late adolescents undergo as their brains develop over time and essentially rewire themselves, automatic condemnation to die in prison at 18 is beyond severity—it is cruelty.
Finding that “the logic articulated in Miller about why children are different from adults for purposes of sentencing applies in equal force to 18-year-olds,” the court held that they must be afforded the same protections in sentencing as younger adolescents.
Life With Parole for Children Convicted of Second-Degree Murder Is Unconstitutional in Michigan
Michigan’s constitution likewise bars a sentence of life with the possibility of parole for a child convicted of second-degree murder, the state supreme courtheld in People v. Stovall.
The court determined that a parolable life sentence for a child is “unusually excessive imprisonment” because it is more severe than sentences for more serious crimes in Michigan, where lawmakers took parolable life imprisonment off the table for children convicted of first-degree murder. That means children convicted of second-degree murder face a more severe sentence than most juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, who are typically sentenced to 25 to 40 years.
“When a sentence is not on the table for the most serious offense a juvenile can commit,” the court wrote, “permitting it for a less serious offense is disproportionate and therefore cruel or unusual.”
Parolable life sentences for children run counter to “a clear national trend toward treating juveniles less harshly than adults and extending Miller beyond just the mandatory LWOP context” and they fail to advance rehabilitative goals, as children sentenced to life are given less access to vital educational and rehabilitative programs.
Further, whether a child sentenced to life will be paroled often has more to do with politics than the child’s maturity and rehabilitation. A person’s meaningful opportunity to gain release is supposed to be measured in terms of their “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” the court wrote, but is instead subject to “the whims of an executive branch policy directive instructing the Parole Board to forgo consideration of all offenders serving parolable life.”
Courts Must Consider Youth as a Mitigating Factor in Sentencing a Child to a Term of Years
In People v. Boykin, the Michigan Supreme Court held that sentencing courts must consider youth as a mitigating factor even when the child is not sentenced to life without parole.
“The Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments requires courts to think differently about how juvenile offenders are sentenced,” the court wrote, adding that Michigan’s sentencing jurisprudence also requires consideration of youth.
Unless the prosecution moves to impose life without parole, children convicted of certain enumerated acts may receive a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years and a maximum sentence of 60 years.
Although it need not be specifically articulated on the record, sentencing courts considering what term of years to impose within this range must consider the child’s youth, the state supreme court held, emphasizing that “youth is a mitigating factor at sentencing, not an aggravating factor.”