A legislative committee heard conflicting testimony on Tuesday on bills that would abolish juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in Michigan.
It is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life without possibility of parole, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012. However, there are nearly 300 individuals in the state serving life sentences for crimes committed before age 19, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC).
Under Michigan law, certain offenses resulting in the death of others carry a penalty of life without parole: First degree murder and death caused by a terrorist acts, willful poisoning, willful drug tampering and willful delivery of explosives are included offenses.
Bill sponsor Rep. Amos O’Neal (D-Saginaw) on Tuesday asked his fellow lawmakers in the House Criminal Justice Committee to consider the bill package. No votes were taken.
Bills would alter sentencing guidelines for life offenses committed by juveniles before age 19 to be a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 60 years, allowing for the possibility of parole after 10 years.
“These are kids. I can’t stress enough the importance this legislation means. It’s a difference between life behind bars and the opportunity for redemption, grace and mercy that all of us at one point in time have benefited from,” O’Neal said.
Advocates for the bill package say some juvenile offenders don’t understand the gravity of their actions and deserve a second chance after being brought to justice.
Ronnie Waters is a community engagement specialist for Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based advocacy group working to reform the state’s criminal justice system and limit over-incarceration.
Waters offered his testimony in support of the legislation as an advocate, and a former juvenile lifer who killed someone during a robbery at age 17. After over 40 years, Waters said he was able to be re-sentenced.
“I was able to prove that I was rehabilitated; that I was redeemable; that I had value. I came home and everything I do out here is to prove that I’m redeemable and I know that people are watching me,” Waters said. “I know how important it is for a person who is branded a juvenile lifer to come out and do the right thing. … Thank god I got a second chance.”
Some crime victims testified against the legislation, saying it takes away justice and personnel safety for them and loved ones. Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns) noted that Ethan Crumbley, who shot and killed four of his fellow students at Oxford High School, as well as wounding a teacher and six other students, could be granted parole after 10 years under the legislation.
The bills require the parole board to review criteria like the immaturity of the perpetrator at the time the crime was committed and whether a home environment contributed to the person’s actions.
“He seems like a pretty good candidate to be let out in 10 years. I find that unconscionable. I find that unconscionable for the victims, for the community that was terrorized,” Filler said.
Crumbley is scheduled for a sentencing hearing in June.
Bill sponsor Rep. Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington) said lawmakers are already working on a substitute to address Filler’s concerns.
Crystal Grigonis testified that her ex-partner, who in 2001 murdered her brother and repeatedly stabbed both her and her sister, made his choice to commit those crimes.
Her ex was only four days shy of age 19. After the Michigan Supreme Court ruled recently that automatic life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional he was re-sentenced, meaning he will likely be released in his lifetime.
Grigonis said the day he is released is the day her life “stops” because she will be watching her back every day, watching out for the man that murdered her brother and fully intended to kill her, as well.
“Ten years … is a slap in the face to anyone that’s ever been in my position,” Grigonis said. “I don’t know why we’re even discussing people who’ve already hurt somebody so bad. … I’ll never understand this, but I ask that you please, please, when you vote on this, that you think about my life, my brother’s life, my sister. We deserve justice.”
Committee Chair Kara Hope (D-Holt), who’s also a bill sponsor, said lawmakers would continue discussions surrounding the bills at the committee’s next hearing.
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