[JURIST] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed a lawsuit [complaint, PDF] Wednesday in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan [official website] against Michigan government officials, claiming that the state’s juvenile sentencing laws are unconstitutional. The nine plaintiffs are adults who were sentenced to life without parole when they were minors. The rights group argues that sentencing children to lifelong prison sentences without the possibility of parole violates due process and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment [Cornell LII backgrounders] under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments, respectively. Deborah Labelle, a lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, said [press release]:
These life without parole sentences ignore the very real differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances. As a society, we believe children do not have the capacity to handle adult responsibilities, so we don’t allow them to use alcohol, join the Army, serve on a jury or vote – yet we sentence them to the harshest punishment we have in this state – to die in adult prisons.
Under Michigan law, minors between ages 14 and 17 must be tried as adults if charged with certain felonies. If the minors are convicted, then judges lack sentencing discretion and must give mandatory life sentences without parole.
According to the ACLU, the US is the only country to sentence children to life in prison without parole. In May, the US Supreme Court [official website] held [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in Graham v. Florida [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the Eighth Amendment [text] ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile’s commission of a non-homicide offense. The court made a similar ruling in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the constitution prohibits capital punishment in cases against juveniles.