Thursday, May 7, 2009

Michigan House panel takes up juvenile lifer bills

The Associated Press

(AP) — LANSING, Mich. - Michigan inmates locked up with mandatory life sentences for crimes committed before they turned 17 would get a chance at parole under legislation that triggered emotional testimony Wednesday in a packed House committee.

Supporters wore yellow T-shirts that stated, "Save the Children, Vote Second Chance." Opponents such as victims' families described horrific crimes committed by teens.

"Young people can be saved, not all of them," said Rep. Bert Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat and sponsor of one of the bills. "Some young people can in fact be saved."

But Greg King, whose daughter Karen was kidnapped from a grocery store, raped and murdered in Saginaw County in 1997 while home for the holidays from Michigan State University, opposed giving the parole board an opportunity to free one of her killers.

"Criminals need to know, no matter how old they are, they will be punished to the full extent of the law," King said as his wife, Linda, wiped away tears. Karen King's killers were a 15-year-old and his 25-year-old cousin who had been released on parole.

Michigan does not allow parole for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of premeditated murder or felony murder-a killing committed during the commission of a felony.

The legislation would give current inmates who committed their offenses before age 17 parole eligibility after serving 15 years. The parole board would not have to release them, though. Future offenders under 17 also could no longer get life with no chance of parole under the bills.

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote May 27 after hearing more testimony on that date. Similar legislation was passed by the House late last legislative session but is expected to hit opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate if it clears the House this time around.

On one side of the debate Wednesday were groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan along with relatives of juvenile offenders serving mandatory life without parole. On the other side were victims' families and prosecutors.

Advocates said juveniles are not as mature as adults but unfairly receive the same punishment for crimes committed before they are old enough to vote. Michigan is one of 11 states to automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for criminal purposes.

Paul Stankewitz, public policy associate for the Michigan Catholic Conference, said juveniles should at least get a chance later in life to prove they are worthy of release.

"Michigan is failing to promote genuine rehabilitation," he said.

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a co-founder of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, said the legislation has re-traumatized victims' families who were promised the perpetrators would never be freed. She said the criminals still get to live and see their loved ones who visit them in prison.

Victims "don't get second chances," said Bishop-Jenkins, whose sister, her sister's husband and their baby were killed by a 16-year-old in Illinois in 1990.

She said lawmakers should focus on prospective measures and not make proposals that would be retroactive and disrupt the lives of victims' families. She noted that Gov. Jennifer Granholm already has the power to commute a life sentence.

A 2005 study by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International showed Michigan had the second-highest rate of imposing life sentences without parole on juveniles.

Michigan has at least 158 prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before they turned 17, according to ACLU research. At least 32 were sentenced for felony murder regardless of whether they pulled the trigger, leading critics to argue there is not enough case-by-case flexibility for children tried as adults.

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