Watch CBS News

Juvenile Lifers: Michigan Ranks Among Top For Sentencing Teens To Life In Prison

DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) - They're called juvenile lifers, sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole for crimes they committed when they were only teenagers.

American Civil Liberties Union's Rod Motts says Michigan has more of them than most other states.

"We have a larger population than most states in the country and currently there are about 360 individuals incarcerated for the rest of their lives and about half of those are folks who were tried at age 17."

The ALCU has filed a federal lawsuit in Detroit claiming life without parole for juveniles 17 and younger is unconstitutional. The lawsuit is seeking mandatory parole reviews when young inmates turn 21 and then every five years after.

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teenagers convicted of murder should not get automatic life without parole sentences -- which makes every convict in that category eligible to be re-sentenced.

"I'm not a monster," said Dakotah Eliason. He was sentenced to life when he was 14-years-old for shooting and killing his grandfather as he lay sleeping on the couch five years ago.

"I love my family very much. What I did was a terrible thing and I hurt a lot of people," Eliason said through tears.

A Barrien County judge recently re-sentenced Eliason to 35 to 60 years in prison, which means he could get out by the age of 50.

Whether Elliason sees the outside or not, his family remains forever divided.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Juvenile prisoners against the Michigan Department of Corrections, alleging rape and other abuses.

[No Relief From Snyder For Man Convicted Of Murder As Teen]

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, Director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU of Michigan and Coordinator of Michigan's Juvenile Mitigation Access Committee -  is part of the team representing the John Does - she says there is more than just one element to the case.

"This case is about what happens to youth when you do put them in an adult prison. The sexual abuse and assaults by adult prisoners and staff, the Tasering, shackling and placing them in excessive solitary confinement." she said.

Wayne State University psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Sheiner says it's an endless cycle. "You've taken people off the street and put them in prisons but you haven't done anything to help them or to figure out why they are there in the first place. When you are done punishing them you put them back on the street and they are either back where they started from or sometimes they are behind where they started from because the experience in prison can be traumatic."

"They are released in the community and they have no skills to live in the community - there are no psychiatric services -- there are precious few in the community to help people make the adjustment in the real world," states Sheiner.

He says 50 percent of the prison population is either drug addicted or chronically mentally ill.

This week WWJ Newsradio 950 reporter Brooke Allen takes a look at juvenile offenders placed into the adult prison system.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.