Local attorneys weigh in: Should juveniles receive life without parole?

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By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Jackson County Prosecutor Mark Blumer says in some respects, he would consider himself to be a liberal prosecutor.

But Blumer doesn't shy away from his belief that some juveniles as young as 15 should be charged as adults in heinous crimes.

"I'm one of those people who believes there is such a thing as a hopelessly vicious juvenile who can only be treated appropriately by the adult court system," Blumer said.

An ACLU-Michigan 2012 report released this month on juvenile sentencing is highlighting the law that requires sentencing people between the ages of 14 and 17 convicted of an offense involving a first-degree homicide to life in prison without the opportunity for parole.

Blumer said prosecutors don't have to charge juveniles as adults, but believes they should retain the right to do so.

"And I think it is appropriate," he said. "We make the initial determination on primarily two factors - the criminal history of the individual at the time of the new crime and also the circumstances of the crime itself."

"Just because these kids are 15 and 16 years old, doesn't mean they can't have an adult viciousness already established and it has to be treated as so by the court system."

The ACLU reports that 371 youths have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Michigan.

"As parents, teachers and older siblings, we inherently understand that kids are fundamentally different than adults," said Deborah LaBelle, the principal author of the ACLU report, in a statement. "They are impulsive, inexperienced, vulnerable to mistreatment, and are not able to easily escape or cope with abuse and other trauma. While there is no denying that youth must be held accountable for actions, as a state, we can do better than sentencing them to die in prison."

But the National Organization of Victims (NOVJL) of Juvenile Lifers, which has a Michigan office in Davisburg debunked much of the ACLU report at their website, www.teen killers. org.

"Advocates for the offenders have misrepresented the brain science, the number of offenders serving this sentence, and worst of all, often the very facts of these horrific crimes," said NOVJL President Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, in a statement. "Victims' families have been re-traumatized by the offender's versions of these crimes in their crusade across the nation. They use phrases like 'children sentenced to die in prison'--nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is--the only people in this scenario with the death sentence were our murdered loved ones.

Retroactively undoing a natural life sentence for murder, as the ACLU is proposing, poses not only public safety risks and legal costs for the taxpayers, but also challenges to victims' families and their rights to due process, Jenkins said.

"While we believe natural life sentences for murder should always be rare--no matter the age of the offender - it is sadly true that there are some people who are so dangerous that they can never be allowed to walk among us," she said. "Victims deserve legal finality. They deserve not to have to spend the rest of their lives attending parole hearings, fighting the release of their loved ones' killers. If the offender, no matter their age, young or old, shows profound culpability and heinousness in an aggravated homicide or multiple homicides, and they are not likely to ever be deemed safe for release, a natural life sentence is entirely appropriate."

Blumer recalled a 15 year-old rapist whom he considered "hopelessly vicious" and certain to remain so.

"That doesn't mean that all juveniles that commit these crimes are that way," he said.

David Lady, a prosecutor for 30 years before becoming a defense attorney seven years ago, said he doesn't have a problem with charging some juveniles as adults.

In one crime in Jackson County, Lady said a juvenile stabbed and killed a neighbor girl until the knife broke off in her body. Then the juvenile went and got another knife. The killer was convicted of second-degree murder and given life in prison and will be eligible for parole.

"There are unfortunately some very hardened young people in that bracket that the juvenile system cannot handle," Lady said. "There are also some in that age range that commit such brutal and horrible crimes that they simply must be segregated from society."

Jackson attorney Brad Brelinski said the issue is a difficult one.

"I don't know what the answer is," he said. "My concerns are you are dealing with a child. And every child is different. So when there is discretion available on how a child is treated, it seems like there is room for error. When you are talking about someone's liberty for the rest of their life ... that is an extreme responsibility."

Published: Thu, May 24, 2012

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