How young is too young for life in prison?

Ever look at your teenage children and wonder what’s wrong with them? I do. I look at my teenage son and wonder, “Good grief, was I EVER like that?” I probably was. But my adult self is a very different person with (mostly) better judgment and (definitely) a deeper sense of empathy for others and understanding of consequences of my actions.

Can any child or teenager really understand those consequences? The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says no. Yesterday, the ACLU of Michigan and Second Chances 4 Youth released a report documenting the systemic disadvantages facing young people in the adult criminal justice system.

When I was my son’s age, 10 years was a long time. Twenty years was forever. And I had no idea what forever really meant.

Most of us recognize that child and teenage brains just aren’t fully grown, so we as a society, as parents, and as a culture offer our kids greater protection from their own actions until they are old enough to live with the consequences.

Unless of course, that teenager commits a crime. Then all bets are off.

The ACLU reports that there have been 371 young offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Michigan (only one other state has more than 371). About one-third of those were present or committed a felony when the homicide was actually committed by someone else.

The ACLU notes:

  • Race affects the plea bargaining process for adolescents. Young people accused of homicide where the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was a person of color. There are clear geographic disparities as well; Oakland, Calhoun, Saginaw and Kent counties offer lessor sentences to young people far less often than the rest of the state.
  • Juveniles reject plea offers far more often than adults. They are less equipped to negotiate pleas because of their immaturity, and inexperience. (Remember when you were young and 10 years seemed like a long time, and 20 years seemed like forever, but you had no idea what “forever” really meant?) Many of them said that they didn’t understand the nature of the charges theywere facing or the meaning of parole.
  • Lawyers who have represented young people who were convicted and sentenced to life have a much higher rate of attorney discipline. Some 5 percent of all attorneys have been reprimanded, compared to 38 percent of those who represented young people who later were sentenced to life in prison.

Michigan requires that defendants as young as 14 be tried as adults if they are charged with certain crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in March in two cases that test the constitutionality of sentencing juvenile offenders to life-without-parole sentences.

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