BRIAN DICKERSON: Bill Schuette’s crusade against juvenile lifers is all about Bill Schuette

No one has recommended that even a single juvenile lifer should be released except as a corpse. (Courtesy Photo)

No one has recommended that even a single juvenile lifer should be released except as a corpse. (Courtesy Photo)

Cruel and unusual: That’s how the U.S. Supreme Court described the law under which Michigan has condemned some 350 convicts to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays.

It also describes Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s cynical campaign to blunt the impact of the high court’s 2012 ruling that Michigan’s mandatory sentencing scheme was unconstitutional.

Schuette insists the ruling applies to only teenagers sentenced after 2012, and has sought to block parole hearings for the 350 juvenile lifers already housed in Michigan’s prisons on grounds that honoring their constitutional rights would unduly traumatize their victims’ survivors.

“The families of crime victims must come first,” the attorney general’s spokeswoman explains.

But that’s a political principle, not a legal one. And it’s the law Schuette vowed to uphold when he was sworn in three years ago as Michigan’s top law enforcement official.

Last month, in an order signaling his impatience with Schuette’s foot-dragging, an exasperated U.S. District Court Judge Corbett O’Meara threatened to appoint a special master unless the state notified its juvenile lifers that they were entitled to parole hearings under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama.

Schuette, who knows an unpopular foil when he sees one, quickly sought a stay of O’Meara’s order, and last week a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit of Appeals agreed to delay its implementation at least until Schuette has articulated his legal objections. The attorney general’s crack public relations staff quickly fired off a news release in which Schuette described the procedural delay as “an early Christmas gift for families of murder victims.”

It is useful to recall that absolutely no one has recommended that even a single juvenile lifer should be released except as a corpse.

Nothing in the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling or Judge O’Meara’s principled efforts to enforce it precludes Michigan from sentencing incorrigible juvenile felons to life in prison or keeping them there. What the court commanded, and O’Meara seeks to compel, is simply an opportunity for any teenager sentenced to life without parole under Michigan’s now invalidated law to tell a parole board why he or she should be released after serving at least 25 years in prison.

Even state Rep. Joe Haveman, a Holland Republican whose west Michigan district is among the most conservative in the state, recognizes the unfairness of treating post-2012 juvenile felons differently than their predecessors.

“I think commonsense says that if you’re going to create a sentencing structure for those (juvenile lifers) moving forward, it should apply to those who got life sentences in the past,” Haveman told MLive’s Jonathan Oosting earlier this month. Haveman, who says he is “not by any means recommending that we open the doors and let everyone out,” says he thinks as many as a fifth of the juvenile lifers in Michigan might be able to make the case for leaving prison before they die.

Haveman, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, sponsored legislation mandating parole hearings for every juvenile lifer, including those incarcerated before 2012. But state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a former sheriff who has made a career of grandstanding on law-and-order issues, persuaded his Senate colleagues to exclude current prisoners, and a version approved by the House would include them only if federal or state Supreme Court justices insisted.

The Michigan Supreme Court could do just that when it takes up the cases of three currently incarcerated juvenile lifers sometime in 2014. Justices have already agreed to hear arguments by lawyers for Dakota Eliason, Raymond Carp and Cortez Davis. Eliason was convicted at the age of 14 when he was charged in his grandfather’s murder; Carp and Davis were convicted of participating in killings when they were 16.

Schuette has already given notice that he will oppose all three prisoners’ requests for a parole hearing. He says it’s another opportunity to express his support for crime victims — but all he’s really expressing is his contempt for the constitutional rights of a constituency that can’t vote.

Brian Dickerson is the deputy editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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