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Tom's Corner - Prosecutors need to comply with high court ruling on juvenile lifers

U.S. Supreme Court (FILE)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - It's taken years for Michigan prosecutors to start complying with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette argued four years ago that the law should only apply to those juveniles sentenced after the court ruling. But the court earlier this year told Schuette that its ruling was retroactive--that such a practice was, and is, wrong.

Tonight, in his corner, our Tom Van Howe says it's time prosecutors quit dragging their feet on this federally-ordered mandate.

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There's a good reason why juveniles--those under the age of 18--aren't allowed to sign contracts or enlist in the military.

Their brains haven't sufficiently developed--matured--to hold them responsible for an ill-advised decision.

The high court felt the same way about capital crime. That teenagers sentenced to life in prison ought to have, if not necessarily a second chance, at least a chance at a second chance.

In Michigan right now, more than 350 inmates are doing life with no hope of parole. Some have already spent more than half their lives behind bars.

Harsh sentences, even for youngsters, became the law of the land during the hyper-tough approach to fighting crime that developed in the 70's and expanded into the 90's.

Among the 350-plus are clearly some pretty bad apples. Likely beyond any hope of rehabilitation. But there are others who've come a long way from where they were when they committed their crimes years ago. Many have seemingly turned their lives around, providing drug and behavior counseling to younger prisoners, for example, or improving their minds by successfully completing classes in higher education.

No one is suggesting all of them should be released with hopes for the best.

But the Supreme Court is saying their cases ought to be reviewed. And those who are deemed ready for a second chance should get it.

The court didn't say release or parole should be automatic. The court said lifers should get a second look. And that process was supposed to have begun last month.

But many county prosecutors have responded by arguing none of the lifers in their jurisdictions qualify.

Some critics argue this is a political year, and that prosecutors who are up for re-election are reluctant to appear soft on crime. And clearly many of them are sensitive to Attorney General Bill Schuette's early argument that the Supreme Court's ruling should be ignored because it would upset the families of victims.

Oakland County's Sheriff Mike Bouchard took it one step further, by suggesting the high court is poised to "unleash Hannibal Lecters on law abiding citizens." Curiously, none of the teens sentenced to life in prison from his county was a cannibal.

So it'll have to go before a court. The foot-dragging has to stop. There are clearly people in prison who made life choices before their brains were fully matured. If, after a through review of each and every case, a judge decides they should all stay in prison, so be it. But if there are candidates considered worthy of a second chance, they should get it. It's the law. And it's the right thing to do.

In this corner...I'm Tom Van Howe.

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