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Kids Sentenced To Die in Prison

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  This inhumane practice is condemned throughout the world and is prohibited by international law. 

Yet, in Michigan, there are over 360 prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed before the age of 18, including some who were as young as 14.  These cases even include individuals who did not actually commit the homicide, but were convicted as an aider-and-abettor or under the “felony murder” doctrine. 

In 2011, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court challenging the practice as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.  In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory laws that impose automatic life-without-parole punishments on juveniles are unconstitutional.  In Michigan, however, the state refused to apply the Miller ruling to juveniles who are already in prison, insisting that they are not entitled to resentencing and must never even have their cases reviewed by a parole board. 

In 2013, Judge John Corbett O’Meara agreed with the ACLU and ruled that all juveniles serving mandatory life sentences must be given parole hearings.  The state appealed. 

While the appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its Miller ruling was retroactive.  The Montgomery decision triggered into effect a new law that has been passed by the Michigan legislature in anticipation that Miller might be declared retroactive.  The new law provided for retroactive resentencings that would allow some youth to be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and set a harsh mandatory sentencing range for everyone else. 

In light of these new developments, in December 2017, the Sixth Circuit ruled that we could no longer bring a categorical challenge to all life-without-parole sentences.  However, in April 2018, Judge Mark Goldsmith ruled that the new law’s harsh sentencing regime was an unconstitutional ex post facto law because it retroactively took away good-time credits that hundreds of class members had earned while serving their unconstitutional life sentences. 

In August 2018, the Sixth Circuit affirmed Judge Goldsmith’s ruling, which will give hundreds of prisoners an earlier opportunity for release and will save taxpayers millions of dollars. 

(Hill v. Snyder; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg; National ACLU Attorneys Steven Watt, Ezekiel Edwards and Brandon Buskey; co-counsel Deborah LaBelle and Ron Reosti.)

Follow this case here.

Press release, April 9, 2018: Federal court rules in favor of children who had been serving life in prison

Article, Jan. 26, 2016: Hope for Michigan juveniles condemned to die behind bars

Read our Fall 2018 Legal Docket.

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