Michigan Supreme Court Bans Automatic Life Sentences for 18-Year-Olds

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DETROIT (TBEN) – The Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday banned automatic life sentences for people who were 18 when they participated in first-degree murder, opening the door to shorter prison terms and options for parole.

In a 4-3 opinion, the court said mandatory suspended sentences at that age violate the Michigan Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel or unusual” sentences.

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The “sentence is disproportionate because it does not take into account the mitigating characteristics of childhood, especially late adolescence brain development,” Judge Elizabeth Welch wrote for the majority.

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Prosecutors can still demand life sentences for 18-year-olds. But a judge must first hold a hearing where defense attorneys can present mitigating evidence, such as education, family life, decision-making skills, and other factors.

It would be similar to the hearings now held for people who were 17 or younger when they participated in first-degree murder.

The state Supreme Court ruled in the case of Kemo Parks, who was 18 in 2016 when he assisted his cousin in a murder outside a Flint market. His conviction meant an automatic no-parole sentence.

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Contradictingly, Justice Elizabeth Clement said the court was infringing on the legislature’s job to set criminal justice policy.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the court extends its current line in the near future. … After all, young adults are not the only ones subject to factors that cloud their reasoning — indeed, we are all subject to cognitive biases to varying degrees,” said Clement, who was joined by judges Brian Zahra and David Viviano.

The court did not specify whether its decision will be applied to other inmates who have exhausted the appeal of their sentences. But the court sent a similar case back to the Court of Appeals for more work, citing Parks’ result.

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“I believe it will be retroactive, but that will have to be further litigated,” said Jessica Zimbelman of the State Appellate Defender Office, known as SADO.

Another SADO attorney, Angeles Meneses, said the office represents many people in the same situation as Parks.

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