DETROIT (AP) — Several Michigan prosecutors are seeking to keep most or all their juvenile lifer inmates behind bars, despite Supreme Court rulings that say the harsh punishment should be banned except for the rare offenders who are beyond rehabilitation.
Of some 363 such prisoners in the state, 236 face new no-parole sentences, according to Deb LaBelle, a defense lawyer who has filed lawsuits maintaining that some counties are ignoring the high court’s order. She said these inmates’ prospects for freedom depend on where their crime was committed, dubbing it “geographic justice.”
In Wayne County, which has the largest number of juvenile lifers, Prosecutor Kym Worthy has been amenable to considering eventual release for dozens of inmates, recommending a term of years — ranging from 25 years to 60 years — in 82 cases , while seeking new no-parole sentences in 62 others. So far, 63 county inmates have been resentenced.
But in neighboring Oakland County, the prosecutor seeks new natural life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates. In Genesee County, it’s 23 of 26 inmates. And it’s all nine in Kalamazoo County. Some prosecutors say they could reconsider some decisions.
LaBelle said those officials seeking to keep their county’s juvenile lifers locked up — many of whom have been incarcerated for decades — are flouting the Supreme Court’s mandate. “Prosecutors in Michigan are defying the entire spirit of these rulings and blocking the majority any opportunity” to demonstrate how they’ve rehabilitated themselves and why they deserve a second chance, she said.
But prosecutors respond they’re treading carefully, tracking down police reports, reviewing inmates’ prison and mental health records, and consulting with victims’ families.
“These are among the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make, including the time I was on the bench,” said Worthy, a former judge. “The most heart-wrenching are dealing with victims’ families who were told … when we prosecuted these cases that they were going to go away for the rest of their lives. Now we’re coming back to you, saying, ‘Sorry that wasn’t true because the Supreme Court has given us this new directive.'”
Worthy said there are inmates who’ve committed terrible crimes at a young age but have turned their lives around and should have an opportunity for parole.
Michigan law, though, requires they serve lengthy terms first. Judges who resentence juvenile lifers can set the minimum sentence from 25 to 40 years; the maximum is 60 years. The parole board makes the final decision on release.
Another prosecutor, Oakland County’s Jessica Cooper, has taken a hard line on most of her juvenile lifer cases, rejecting the explanation made by some defense lawyers and others that the criminal behavior of these offenders often stems from their troubled childhoods, where many were exposed to drugs and violence.
“What do we say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ rap you on the hand and say, ‘It’s OK, you killed a human being … you came from a bad background, and that’s acceptable?'” Cooper asks.
One of the inmates with a turbulent background is among dozens who will have an opportunity for parole.
Ahmad Williams, 35, lost his mother, a drug-addict, when he was 10 and his grandmother shortly after. He fatally shot an acquaintance, Derrick Pimpleton, a tragic end to a simmering feud. Both were 15.
At his resentencing last winter, the victim’s sister said she thought 18 years in prison wasn’t enough punishment. She detailed her family’s anguish.
In his apology, Williams said he understood their pain and described himself as a changed man. “I came into prison as a young boy who was lost, self-doubting, and full of anger,” he said. “And each day, I strive to redeem myself, to redeem my behavior in the past. … I’m far from my goals in life, but I’m also far from the boy that I was when I started this journey.”
Williams, who will be eligible for parole in early 2025, said in an interview from prison that the death he caused never fades from his memory.
“Every day I wake up, it’s a thought, something that will be a part of my life,” he said. “I can never forget about my crime. I can never forget about the victim. That’s part of my past and a part of my present, and it’s going to be a part of my future. It’s always going to be with me.