Last year the Supreme Court ruled against categorical life without parole sentences for juveniles. Now, a federal judge in Michigan has applied that ruling to the Michigan parole statute, giving 360 inmates a chance at parole.
Back in January of this year Judge John Corbett of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that Michigan’s parole statute was unconstitutional when it was applied to juvenile convictions of 1st Degree Murder. The statute excluded 1st Degree Murder convictions from consideration by parole boards across the state. Paired with the state’s mandatory life sentence for all 1st Degree Murder convictions, this set up an automatic life without parole sentence for every person convicted of the crime, regardless of age. That sentencing scheme violated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, so the court found it unconstitutional.
The court also ruled that Miller had to apply retroactively to anyone whose cases was still open or on appeal, even if the events happened before the Supreme Court Miller decision. “To hold otherwise,” the court said, “would allow the state to impose unconsititutional punishment on some persons but not others, an intolerable miscarriage of justice.”
In spite of the clear language of the January opinion, the state, including Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, took the position that the court’s ruling only applied to the particular inmates who filed suit. This week’s order clearly told the Defendants they were wrong.
Once a court has ruled a statute unconstitutional, the state cannot apply that statute to anyone in the same situation as was raised in the case. “Therefore,” the court said, “every person convicted of first-degree murder in the State of Michigan as a juvenile and who was sentenced to life in prison shall be eligible for parole.”
The court has also asked both sides to recommend procedures needed for the state parole boards to comply with the Miller requirements. For the 360 inmates convicted of 1st Degree Murder as juveniles, this means that they may soon be allowed to appear before the parole board and be released before the end of their natural lives.