LANSING (AP) - Young killers could no longer be sentenced to mandatory life without parole under legislation nearing final approval in Michigan, but those now incarcerated for crimes committed under age 18 would stay locked up despite pleas for a second look.
The Republican-controlled state House voted 62-48 Tuesday, mostly along party lines, to approve the new sentencing rules, 19 months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory no-parole sentences for juveniles. The Senate is expected to send the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder; it approved an earlier version in the fall.
The Supreme Court's June 2012 decision - based on the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment - is silent on retroactivity, and courts across the country have been divided ever since on the issue. It is especially relevant in Michigan, home to around 360 juvenile lifers, the second-highest number in the U.S.
House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Kurt Heise said he wishes the high court had settled the retroactivity question, but lawmakers put guidelines in place in case it does in the future. The bill includes a "trigger" so prisoners now behind bars would be resentenced if the U.S. Supreme Court or Michigan Supreme Court determines the 2012 ruling should apply retroactively.
"Does everybody like it? No. ... But we dealt with it the best way possible," said the Republican from Wayne County's Plymouth Township, adding that victims' families will be spared having to travel back to Lansing for emotional legislative hearings.
Juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole after the high court's decision. The sentence just cannot be mandatory on judges, who also must consider factors such as defendants' immaturity, rehabilitation chances, family and home environment, peer pressures and inability as youths to navigate possible plea deals.
If Michigan juveniles charged as adults commit first-degree murder or other serious crimes causing death and do not receive life without parole, judges would have to sentence them to a minimum of at least 25 years and a maximum of at least 60 years under the bill.
Critics said it makes no sense that past mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional and future ones are not - an "intolerable miscarriage of justice," said Rep. Andrew Kandrevas, D-Southgate.
It is estimated that 150 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles were accomplices, not the actual killers.
Over objections from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O'Meara in November directed the state to give juvenile lifers an opportunity to apply for release or face the appointment of a special master to oversee the process. His ruling was appealed.
The legislation would apply prospectively to people convicted after Snyder signs it or, if the conviction occurred before the law goes into effect, the case is pending in a trial court or time periods for appeals have not expired.
Jody Robinson's brother was killed by a 16-year-old and 20-year-old in Pontiac in 1990, and she later co-founded the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.
"This legislation will not only put Michigan laws in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court, but it also gives victims' families the hope that legal finality is a possibility and the nightmare of repeatedly reliving their loved one's murder may soon come to an end," Robinson said in a statement released by Schuette's office.
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