‘We grow out of crime’: Advocates urge state to abolish juvenile life without parole

By: - February 24, 2023 4:21 am

Jose Burgos | Screenshot

Updated, 2:02 p.m. 2/24/2023 

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional. 

But more than a decade later, there remain Michiganders who, years after entering prison, are continuing to serve out their life sentences for crimes they committed as children.

That must change, prison reform advocates said Thursday.

“The process here in Michigan in terms of reconsidering those cases, looking at resentencing, has been extremely slow,” state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said. “… It’s been over a decade, and we still have folks who haven’t had the chance to make it through the process.” 

Irwin was one of three panelists to speak during a discussion around ending life without parole for juveniles and establishing more parole review opportunities for all Michiganders in prison. The panel was held as part of the “Day of Empathy,” an annual event that advocates for an improved criminal justice system. It is hosted by Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based criminal justice reform organization, and organized nationally by the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Dream.org. 

Pete Martel | Screenshot

Moderated by Pete Martel, a program coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Michigan Criminal Justice Program, panel members also included Jose Burgos, a re-entry specialist with the State Appellate Defender Office; Sophie Ordway, a legal research analyst with the Detroit Justice Center; and Lawanda Hollister, a statewide organizer for AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program.

Irwin said he is poised to introduce legislation that would abolish juvenile life without parole in Michigan. The senator was expected to introduce that legislation today but was unable to because the Michigan Senate did not meet due to the winter storm. 

Last year, Irwin, now-former Sen. Michael MacDonald (R-Macomb Twp.), Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and now-Rep. Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington) introduced Senate Bills 848851 to eliminate juvenile life without parole. Despite being bipartisan, those bills did not make it out of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. The Legislature, then controlled by Republicans, never voted on them.

With Democrats now in control of the state House, Senate and governorship, many are hopeful the legislation is more likely to receive a hearing and vote. 

“We believe in rehabilitation and want to provide opportunities for rehabilitation, and we particularly want to make sure that people who commit their offenses when they’re very young get those opportunities,” Irwin said. 

For Jose Burgos, who was sentenced to life in prison when he was 16, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 paved the way to be able to leave prison at 43. Now he has dedicated his life to working with returning citizens. 

“I was always committed to coming home and making something good come out of a bad situation,” Burgos said. 

Twenty-five other states and the District of Columbia have banned life sentences without parole for juveniles.

“It’s time for Michigan to finally come into line with that ruling from the Supreme Court and join the other states,” Burgos said.

There are 294 Michigan inmates who were sentenced to life terms when they were 18 years old or younger and remain incarcerated, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Both Burgos and Hollister, who served 34 years in prison before being released in 2020, emphasized that Irwin’s bills are not “get-out-of-jail-free cards.” Curbing the amount of time that people spend in prison is centered around the idea that individuals can significantly change and grow. In other words, Burgos and Hollister said: They were not the same person going into prison as they were when they left.

Those who have left prison after being sentenced to life in prison as juveniles “are entrepreneurs” and are “working and living with their families,” Burgos said. 

“We have proven we are a safe community to release,” he continued “We grow out of crime. This is not a get out of jail free card. You have to show while you were incarcerated that you did all the necessary things to correct your behavior.”

Extensive scientific research has shown there are significant developmental differences between youths and adults with regards to decision-making processes, impulse control and susceptibility to peer pressure. The Supreme Court noted this in its Miller v. Alabama decision in 2012 that ruled juvenile life without parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Studies have also shown low recidivism rates among people who were released from prison after being sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. One study from the Philadelphia District Attorney Office found a recidivism rate of 1.14% among 174 people who had previously been sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.

Lawanda Hollister | Screenshot

In addition to the bills that would ban juvenile life without parole, Thursday’s panelists advocated for what’s known as “Second Look” legislation that would allow courts to reevaluate sentencing after individuals serve 10 years in prison. This type of legislation would apply to all Michiganders in prison, not just juveniles. It is currently not introduced in the Legislature.

Martel said this would be especially instrumental in addressing Michigan being an outlier when it comes to long prison sentences, such as life sentences; the state has one of the country’s longest average prison sentences.  As of 2021, about 15,500 people in Michigan were serving sentences of 15 years or longer, Ordway noted.

“We have thousands of people serving these long sentences; many of them are sentenced to die in prison,” said Martel, who was incarcerated from 1994 through 2008.

“Second Look seeks to address problems we have in Michigan with people serving long sentences, and there’s no avenue for release, regardless of their behavior, who they develop into” while in prison, Martel continued.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.