Ruling offers inmates rare chance at freedom

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DETROIT | The Supreme Court ruling that banned states from imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles offers an unexpected chance at freedom to more than 2,000 inmates who have never been able to seek release and had virtually no hope that their prospects would change.

In more than two dozen states, lawyers can now ask for new sentences. And judges will have discretion to look beyond the crime at other factors such as a prisoner’s age at the time of the offense, the person’s background and perhaps evidence that an inmate has changed while incarcerated.

“The sentence may still be the same,” said Lawrence Wojcik, a Chicago lawyer and co-chairman of the juvenile justice committee of the American Bar Association. “But even a sentence with a chance for parole gives hope.”

Virtually all of the sentences in question are for murder. When Henry Hill was an illiterate 16-year-old, he was linked to a killing at a park in Saginaw County and convicted of aiding and abetting murder.

Hill had a gun, but he was never accused of firing the fatal shot. Nonetheless, the sentence was automatic: life without parole. He’s spent the last 32 years in Michigan prisons.

“I was a 16-year-old with a mentality of a 9-year-old. I didn’t understand what life without parole even meant,” Hill, now 48, said Tuesday in a phone interview.

He heard about the Supreme Court decision while watching TV news in his cell.

“I got up hollering and rejoicing and praising God,” said Hill, who used to renovate homes for a living. He would like to go back to his old trade and be a mentor to children. “The last three or four years, they always put young guys in with me.”

The ruling also alarmed families of crime victims. Jessica Cooper, prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., said her office has been taking calls from “distressed” victims’ relatives.

“Now they’re going to start all over,” Ms. Cooper said. “It’s going to take years.”

The Michigan Corrections Department said 364 inmates are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed while younger than 18. The prisoners now range in age from 16 to 67.

In Monday’s 5-4 decision, the high court said life without parole for juveniles violates the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. More than 2,000 people are in U.S. prisons under such a sentence, according to facts agreed on by attorneys for both sides of the case.

It’s possible that some inmates will win immediate release. Judges could also impose new sentences carrying a specific number of years and a parole review. Some inmates could still be kept locked up for life.

“Judges have options,” said Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The Supreme Court said to look at juveniles individually: their age, family background, peer pressures, home environments.”

Ms. LaBelle said she took a phone call from 34-year-old inmate Kevin Boyd, who was 16 when his mother killed his father. Boyd had given her the keys to his father’s apartment, was aware of her threats and was convicted of murder.

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