On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O'Meara ordered an end to life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles in the state of Michigan. The order comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court found such sentences to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Now in Michigan, where the law required life-without-parole sentencing for those found guilty of first-degree murder, 350 inmates have a chance to get their sentences reviewed by a parole board, according to the Huffington Post.
The law would mean that current inmates like 22-year-old Keith Maxey would be eligible for parole hearings, similar to other prisoners who appear before a parole board. Maxey was 16 years old when he and two other acquaintances decided to steal a pound of marijuana during a drug deal. One of his partners shot and killed a man. Although Maxey was unarmed, he was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Over the last 25 years, Michigan has become home to more minors with life sentences than any other state except for Pennsylvania.
Life convictions for minors began to accelerate in Michigan in 1988, and the state is now home to the second-highest number of juvenile lifers in the nation, trailing only Pennsylvania. Sentencing guidelines gave judges two options for juveniles 15 and older charged with certain crimes: imprisonment in a juvenile facility with mandatory release at 21, or mandatory life in prison without parole. Juveniles were sentenced to life without parole at almost twice the previous rate for the next eight years, according to MLive.
Changes to the law in 1996 allowed judges to create a blended sentence, where the minor would go to a juvenile facility until age 21, with the judge deciding at that point whether to order mandatory life. Another change in 1996 allowed courts to automatically try 14-year-olds as adults.
Of those who are sentenced, research has shown African Americans are most affected by the stiff penalty.
Seventy-three percent of minors serving life sentences in Michigan are black, according to a 2012 report released by the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. Across the nation, juveniles charged in murders of white victims were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than if the victims were African-American.
Read more at the Huffington Post.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.