By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ANN ARBOR – More than 300 children under the age of 18 in Michigan’s prisons are serving a life sentence without a chance of parole, according to Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Labelle.
Michigan is second only to Louisiana in the number of juveniles serving life sentences in adult prisons, and Labelle wants to do something about it.
Labelle, who is one of the lead attorneys working to protect domestic partnership benefits for LGBT families in the wake of anti-marriage Proposal 2, is also the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. The program was created to challenge state laws that allow children to be put in prison for life without chance of parole.
Earlier this week, Labelle appeared before the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee to argue that these laws violate international human rights treaties.
“The U.N. Human Rights Committee is looking at the U.S.’s compliance with their treaty obligations, and one of the issues that has come up is the use of this penalty for children, which violates the International Bill of Human Rights,” Labelle said.
Some of Michigan’s jailed children are serving time for serious crimes but, “about half of them are in for aiding or abetting,” she said. “Say an adult is committing a robbery and the child is a lookout, and the adult kills someone. The child gets the same sentence as the adult – life without parole.”
Labelle added that judges have no discretion under the law and that juries aren’t told what the penalty will be if they find a child guilty.
“No one can stop this train,” Labelle said. Under the existing law, if an adult offender is offered and takes a plea bargain, the child can still receive a life sentence, she said.
“If you’re fourteen, you can’t leave home or school or drink or vote – but if you commit a crime, suddenly you’re as responsible as an adult,” Labelle said.
Bills have been introduced in both Michigan’s House and Senate to amend the laws, but that the Republican chairs of the chambers’ respective Judiciary committees haven’t allowed the bills to go forward for a vote, she said. House Bills 5512-5515 and Senate Bills 0941 and 0942 were introduced in 2005 by state Rep. Paul Condino, D-Southfield, and this year by state Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor.
Asked why she was taking her case to the U.N., Labelle paraphrased Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Eleanor Roosevelt has this famous quote that says, ‘How do you cure human rights violations” – you start locally, you start at home,'” Labelle said.
“We have to hope that if the Human Rights Committee finds Michigan egregious in violation of human rights – the people may care about that, even if the government is being less sensitive to these issues.”
How to speak OUT
Contact the chairs of the state House and Senate Judiciary Committees and urge them to hold a vote on House Bills 5512-5515 and Senate Bills 0941 & 0942, which would prohibit giving life sentences to juvenile offenders and make parole a possibility for currently incarcerated people who were convicted while still children. Then, contact your state representative and senator and urge them to support the bills.
William VanRegenmorter, chair, Michigan House Judiciary Committee, N1093 House Office Building, P.O. Box 30014, Lansing, MI, 48909-7514. Call (517) 373-8900 or e-mail [email protected].
Sen. Alan Cropsey, Chair, Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee, PO Box 30036, Lansing, MI, 48909-7536. Call toll-free (866) 305-2133 or e-mail [email protected].
To contact your state representative call the Michigan State House Clerk’s office at (517) 373-0135 or visit http://house.michigan.gov/find_a_rep.asp.
To contact your state senator call the Secretary of the Senate at (517) 373-2400 or visit http://senate.michigan.gov.
For more information on children who are incarcerated as adults, visit Human Rights Watch at http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/index.htm.