Michigan juvenile lifers still may get freedom

By Ed White
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan Supreme Court decision that thwarts the hopes of hundreds of inmates seeking relief from no-parole sentences won’t end a hot legal issue that’s being played out across the country.

The court last week said inmates convicted of murder as teens won’t get new sentences in Michigan, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared automatic no-parole punishments for youth as unconstitutional.

So where do things stand?

Eyes now are on a separate challenge in Ann Arbor federal court where a judge last year ordered parole hearings for more than 300 prisoners. An appeal by Attorney General Bill Schuette, however, put that remedy on hold.

The Legislature, too, could change state law to accommodate juvenile lifers, as they’re known, but there’s no interest in the short term.

“It’s an election year, for starters,” said state Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee. “This is a very difficult issue. It’s complex. It’s emotional. There is pain on the victims’ side. There is pain on the side of the incarcerated.

“There are some guys — their crimes are so heinous, by any objective standard, that they should never be let out,” he said. “But some do have very compelling cases.”

There is no dispute that anyone now convicted of murder under 18 is entitled to have a judge consider many facts before imposing a sentence, including education, home life, maturity and culpability in the crime. A no-parole term still is possible in Michigan, but a judge also could choose a sentence that offers an opportunity for release.

Still unsettled in many states is whether to apply that 2012 U.S. Supreme Court rule to current inmates. If so, it could open the prison gate for thousands of people who were convicted years ago but have turned their lives around.

Courts or lawmakers in at least 10 states have given the ruling retroactive treatment, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that researches criminal justice issues.

“Children are uniquely capable of change and require a second look down the road,” the group said in a recent report. “Juveniles have a capacity for rehabilitation that should not be ignored.”

But in a 4-3 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court said current inmates aren’t eligible because the new standard simply is “procedural” and not “substantive.” It also said reopening old cases would be a burden for judges, prosecutors and families, although the number of prisoners is just a speck of the overall prison population.

“What’s crueler than life without parole is life without hope,” said attorney Deborah LaBelle of Ann Arbor. “You can do a very long time in prison as long as your change in prison will be recognized. That’s been the struggle the last few days.”

Since 2010, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision, LaBelle has led a separate lawsuit that challenges Michigan’s parole law as unconstitutional for teens. U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara agreed last year and ordered parole hearings that must be “fair, meaningful and realistic” for prisoners who were sent away for life. The order is being appealed by the state at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Schuette, a Republican seeking re-election, has been steadfast in opposing any benefit for prisoners, saying it would be traumatic for victims’ relatives, but that view is not unanimous.

In 1996, Saulo Montalvo was a 16-year-old getaway driver in a fatal store robbery in Grand Rapids.

He never entered the store but was convicted of murder and given an automatic no-parole sentence.

Relatives of the victim, Rodney Corp, have said they want Montalvo, now 34, to be released.

Noting inconsistencies across the country, Schuette is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the issue by declaring the 2012 decision doesn’t apply to inmates who have long exhausted their appeals.

The court could decide in fall whether to intervene in a Nebraska case that favored prisoners.

“Any retroactive application ... would challenge the settled expectations of victims that these violent murderers would never be subject to release,” Schuette said in a court filing with attorneys general from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and New Hampshire.