MICHIGAN — For the last 10 years, civil rights attorney Deborah LaBelle and the ACLU of Michigan have been working to get resentencing hearings scheduled for juvenile lifers, people who were sentenced as children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
LaBelle said they began with 363 cases. Now, 160 remain. And, those cases have been delayed.
“Their sentences were vacated first by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012,” LaBelle said during a Zoom interview on Thursday. “Then Michigan resisted applying that. Then the Supreme Court came back and said ‘no it applies to everybody who’s been sentenced. Everybody has to have this opportunity.’”
This week, LaBelle and the ACLU reached a settlement with Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office to move those remaining cases forward, she said.
The AG, who oversees all the prosecutors in the state, will advised them “to stop delaying this,” she said.
“There’s some counties in which they resolved all their cases quickly and people were resentenced,” LaBelle said. “In fact in Washtenaw County I think everyone is out and living a productive life because they moved through all of theirs’ right away.”
Ingham county did too, she said. However there are others that haven’t done anything which has left some cases in limbo.
She said Wayne County has 35 cases. Genessee, Kalamazoo, Berrien, and Macomb counties have many cases as well. Prosecutors have cited a lack of attorneys to go through the individual cases.
Others, she said, aren’t budging.
“For some prosecutors they were the original prosecutors on the case and they just refused to move forward,” LaBelle said.
She said those prosecutors believe they were right the first time. However, she’s grateful the Michigan Supreme Court stepped in years ago and saw the ACLU's efforts to give juvenile lifers a second chance.
“The Supreme Court said this many, many years ago. They said children are different than adults,” LaBelle said. “They said what every parent knows, what the brain science knows, what we should all understand is children grow up, children mature and they get rehabilitated and they deserve a second look.”
LaBelle said she hopes one day sentencing juveniles to life in prison is abolished forever. Most states don’t do it. And, she added that the Retired Judges Association stated a few years ago that it should be abolished.
“It was especially important in Michigan who did this punishment very hard, who did it against majority kids of color despite the fact that they’re not the majority who committed these crimes,” LaBelle said. “In the world this is a sentence that has been declared inhumane and violative of basic human rights of children.”
LaBelle said resentencing gives clients an opportunity to go before a parole board. For now, she’s grateful Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the attorney general have gotten involved to move their cases along.
“It’s really about seeing people,” LaBelle said. “You know, really seeing people past the biases, past the institutionalized racism, past the false concepts of super predators. Just see them.”