Michigan ruling a bright spot as litigators challenge JLWOP sentences

A federal judge in Michigan has declared that every person who has served 10 years of a life sentence for a crime that occurred when he or she was under 18 is eligible for parole consideration.

U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara, responding to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by attorney and CFSY board member Deborah LaBelle, said the state must immediately develop a system that guarantees a meaningful opportunity for release. The judge also required the parole board to explain in writing any decision to deny a parole application.

This ruling is one of the high points in litigation efforts as lawyers throughout the country continue their work in both state and federal courts to end the practice of imposing extreme sentences upon children.  And, while there have been a number of new and sometimes unexpected challenges during the past year, there have also been tremendous strides toward our goal of ensuring that all children are held accountable for their actions in an age-appropriate manner.

Attorneys committed to the abolition of sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children have continued to make the Miller v. Alabama U.S. Supreme Court decision meaningful by arguing that everyone currently serving unconstitutional sentences is now entitled to a new sentencing hearing in which life without parole would not be the only option.  The United States Department of Justice has taken the position that Miller is retroactive and applies to everyone serving a mandatory life without parole sentence for a crime that occurred when the person was under 18, but some state level prosecutors have continued to resist this aspect of Miller implementation.

Thus far, five state supreme courts have ruled on this particular issue.  Iowa and Mississippi both issued unanimous opinions holding that Miller, like Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons before it, should be applied retroactively, even for people who exhausted their direct appeals years ago.  No matter what happens in any other jurisdiction, these decisions mean that people in these states will get their days in court.  However, Minnesota and Pennsylvania both held that Miller only applies to new cases and people who were on direct appeal when the case was decided last year.  And the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which had been granting motions for resentencing, recently reversed itself, agreeing with the courts in Minnesota and Pennsylvania that Miller is not retroactive.  A number of other state supreme courts are also currently considering this issue and we can expect decisions in Massachusetts, Michigan, Florida, Washington, and Illinois in the coming months.  Additional states supreme courts will also certainly weigh in as well.

The situation in federal courts is also mixed.  Two federal Circuits, the Fifth and the Eleventh, fairly quickly held that Miller was not retroactive, although the Fifth later de-published its opinion and is, therefore, not binding precedent.  None of the other circuits have yet had the opportunity to consider the issue of Miller retroactivity.  Many of these courts have granted preliminary motions allowing the cases to move forward but none have addressed the issue directly.  Currently, having granted these initial motions, the Fourth and the Eighth Circuits have appeals pending.  Regardless of how these cases turn out, it is very likely that the United States Supreme Court will ultimately be called on to make a final decision on this issue.