For a fair, just jurisprudence

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For a fair, just jurisprudence

Approximately 20 years ago, I sentenced a 16-year-old girl to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The girl, Jennifer Pruitt, was present – but in another room – when a friend 10 years her senior stabbed a 75-year-old man to death during a robbery. A jury found Jennifer guilty of second-degree murder, and under the state’s sentencing guidelines, I was mandated to sentence her to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the years since, Jennifer has grown into a remarkable woman, and I think she deserves an opportunity to demonstrate that she is prepared to re-enter society.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana should provide her with that opportunity. Montgomery made retroactive the 2012 Miller v. Louisiana decision, which found that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed by a person younger than 18. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 6-3 majority, also said that it is appropriate to sentence children to life without parole only when they may be found to be “permanently incorrigible,” ushering in a major change in our criminal jurisprudence.

In many ways, this is a return to what existed in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s, our sentencing practices were predicated upon the idea that harsh mandatory sentences served no valid purpose. This changed in the 1970s and 1980s, as it became easier for prosecutors to try children as adults, and legislatively approved mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines took center stage. This coincided with the rise of the “super-predator theory,” which predicted a coming wave of juvenile crime that would terrorize citizens. This crime wave never materialized, the theory has been debunked by its originator, and our juvenile crime rates have dropped to historic lows. But its impact continues.

As a result of these changes, judges lost much of their sentencing discretion. Our opportunity to evaluate each defendant as an individual became significantly limited, as in many instances, the sentencing was set by those who knew little of the actions which preceded each crime, the relevant factors unique to each individual, or their capacity for growth and change. As a result, hundreds and thousands of juveniles were sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole.

Miller began the process of returning us to individual justice and rehabilitation. Drawing in part on adolescent development research, Miller found that children are “constitutionally different” from adults for purposes of sentencing. The Supreme Court reasoned that children have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, and are unable to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. The Court found that the characters of children are not as well formed as an adult, meaning they are uniquely capable of reform.

Jennifer Pruitt is proof of this potential for growth and change. She dropped out of school in the sixth grade and her parents put her out when she was 12. She was just 14 when she befriended a 24-year-old woman.

One day, the woman told Jennifer that she needed money and fast. She knew there was a 75-year-old man who lived down the street who often befriended the young people in the neighborhood.

“We know the old man has money in his house,” she said to Jennifer. “Let’s go down there, and while I’m distracting him, you go find the money he has stashed away.”

Jennifer did as she was told and found the money. When she returned to the living room, she saw her friend stabbing the old man with a kitchen knife.

Jennifer was tried as an adult on a charge of felony murder. In Michigan, that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Jennifer has now been incarcerated for more than 20 years.

Jennifer is not the same girl she was when she appeared in my courtroom a quarter-century ago. Shortly after she was incarcerated, she was raped by a member of the Michigan Department of Corrections. She became the primary witness in a class-action lawsuit brought against the MDOC. She later developed confidence in herself; she finished her schooling and began to tutor prisoners in reading and writing. Because of Jennifer’s maturity, prison administrators began to call on her to handle suicide watches over her fellow inmates.

Jennifer was once considered “irredeemable.” Now I, the same judge who said she would die in prison, believe she deserves an opportunity to demonstrate her change before a proper parole or re-sentencing entity. She has been rehabilitated and should now have the opportunity to live free and to become a contributing member of our society. Just as importantly, she proves that we can never predict who a child will become as an adult and that we are all more than the worst thing that we have ever done.

As we review the releasing of prisoners, we must ensure they come out of prison with a skill and moral code that will make them “needed” by society, whereas today, they come out with little skill or good moral behavior and thus “needy” and a burden to society.

It is imperative that we work together to ensure that these important rulings are honored within our states so that individuals like Jennifer, who were given this unconstitutional sentence, have a chance for a new and productive life.

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Fred M. Mester is a retired Oakland County Circuit Court judge.

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