Un‐​American Justice for Juveniles

August 3, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on August 3, 2011.

Rarely mentioned in Congress, the media or our schools is the alarming violation of the constitutional rights of American juveniles, which spurred, for example, this July 19 editorial in the Detroit Free Press (“Courts should give juvenile lifers chance at parole”):

“Roughly 350 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole in Michigan — among the most in a nation that stands alone in imposing such sentences on children.”

Actually, we are one of only two U.N.-recognized nations in the world that perpetuates this disfigurement of justice. As of November 2009, 194 countries ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (defining a child “as any human being under the age of 18, unless an earlier age of majority is recognized by a country’s law.”)

This international law has been ratified, as I mentioned above, by nearly 200 countries. There are two holdouts. Can you guess which ones? The United States and Somalia.

Somalia! What company we keep!

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), challenging this shame on the United States — though not recognized as a shame by most of us — reports: “In Michigan, at the unbridled discretion of the prosecutor, a 14‐​year‐​old can be charged and tried as an adult for first‐​degree murder (even if the child did not commit the murder itself), and, if convicted, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (or, as one judge in Wisconsin appropriately called it, ‘death in prison’) without a judge or jury ever even having the slightest opportunity to consider the child’s age” (“Lift Children Out of the Criminal Justice System — Don’t Lock Them Away,” ACLU​.org, June 22).

Ezekiel Edwards, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, rightly says: “It is unconstitutional to deny children any possibility of parole. The United States needs to join the rest of the world and stop the cruel and unusual practice of sentencing kids to spend the rest of their lives in prison.”

Edwards said the above on July 15, the same day the Michigan affiliate of the ACLU won a vital way forward in disassociating the United States from Somalia (“Federal Court Rules ACLU Lawsuit Challenging Juvenile Life Without Parole Can Proceed,” ACLU​.org).

Alas, all but one of the ACLU juveniles in the lawsuit who have been locked away without parole were not liberated by this decision. Under Michigan’s statute of limitations, they waited too long to contest their sentences. But plaintiff Keith Maxey is eligible for the ruling in Hill et al. v. Granholm (as in Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor).

Here is Maxey’s chilling story: He “was 16 years old in 2007 when he was part of a robbery at an abandoned house. He and two others attempted to rob four people during a drug deal. Keith did not possess a weapon himself nor did he shoot any of the victims. His role in the robbery was to restrain one of the victims by wrapping his arms around him.

“The victim who was being restrained by Keith was able to take out his own gun and shoot Keith. Keith got shot in the stomach, right thigh and knee. Keith fled the scene at that point. After Keith was shot, his two accomplices, who both had guns, shot at three of the four people at the house. One died at the scene. Keith’s co‐​defendants were both shooters and adults at the time of the crime yet received shorter sentences than Keith” (“Hill et al. v. Granholm — Client Profiles,” ACLU​.org, Nov. 17, 2010).

Maxey’s attorneys claim that his Eighth Amendment (“cruel and unusual punishment”) rights had been violated. U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara has now paved the way for Maxey’s case, on these grounds, against the state to proceed. The teen remains in prison​.In a knowledgeable response to this decision, Deborah Labelle, attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, says:

“By ignoring a child’s potential for rehabilitation and denying judges and juries any discretion, the state doles out unforgiving sentences that violate basic fairness and human rights principles. This decision is the first step toward correcting this fundamental injustice” (“Federal Court Rules Juvenile Life Without Parole Lawsuit May Proceed,” ACLU​Mich​.org, July 15). Only the “first step.”

As this ruling is appealed, there is a deeply penetrating Detroit Free Press July 19 editorial (“Courts should give juvenile lifers chance at parole”): “Michigan’s juvenile lifer law covers homicide cases only, but nearly half of the juvenile lifers in Michigan didn’t do the killing. Instead, they were convicted of aiding and abetting the crime — which can mean little more than being at the scene.” And dig this: “Two‐​thirds of Michigan’s juvenile lifers are African‐​American.”

John Paul Stevens, one of the wisest justices to sit on the Supreme Court, said in Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988): “Less culpability should attach to a crime committed by a juvenile than to a comparable crime committed by an adult. The basis for this conclusion is too obvious to require extended explanation. Inexperience, less education and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct, while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than is an adult.”

Hooray for the Michigan affiliate of the ACLU! Will any presidential candidates mention this decision? Would any of them care?

Worth remembering is the 2005 Supreme Court decision that state laws can’t sentence juveniles to be executed. And last year Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court ruled state courts can’t sentence juveniles to life without parole for non‐​homicide convictions.

State court rulings are not the supreme law of this land. How many of us know that?

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