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Michigan’s Life Without Parole for Juveniles Challenged

Keith Maxey was only 16 in 2007 when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for being part of a marijuana drug deal that turned violent. According to Michigan court records, Maxey didn’t have a weapon and didn’t shoot anyone. During the drug deal, Maxey and two others were shot and wounded and another young man was killed.

Under a Michigan law that requires minors as young as 14 charged with certain felonies to be tried as adults to life without parole, Maxey could spend the rest of his foreseeable future in jail. But a recent ruling by a federal judge permitting an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit,which argues sentences like Michigan's juvenile life without parole are cruel and unusual punishment, to move forward is a step toward overturning the law that has left hundreds of young people behind bars indefinitely.

As the Iowa Independent reports,the ACLU doesn't plan to stop there. Because "it is seeking to extend the holding of Graham [the court case] to juveniles convicted of homicide, the end result of the Michigan case will reach far further than the state’s borders."

 “Today’s ruling allows us to prove what many already know – sentencing children to die in prison without giving them an opportunity for parole is inhumane, unfair and unconstitutional,”  Deborah Labelle, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, said. “By ignoring a child’s potential for rehabilitation and denying judges and juries any discretion, the state doles out unforgiving sentences that violate basic fairness and human rights principles. This decision is the first step toward correcting this fundamental injustice."

In 2009, there were 485 persons serving life sentences in Michigan for crimes committed when they were 17 or younger, according to data from the state’s Department of Corrections collected by the Iowa Independent. Of those, 346 were incarcerated without possibility of parole

Under Michigan law, persons 14 and older accused of committing certain felonies are tried as adults and must be sentenced to life without parole, if convicted.

The ACLU challenged Michigan's law on behalf of 13 individuals who were originally sentenced as juveniles, but in the ruling issued Tuesday U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara said all but one of the plaintiffs had exceeded a three-year statute of limitations and would therefore not be able to challenge their sentences.

O’Meara said in Tuesday’s ruling that a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, Graham v. Florida, which found that it was "cruel and unusual punishment" to convict a juvenile of life without parole on non-homicide offenses, left key legal questions unanswered.

"In Graham, the Court held that a sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide violated the Eighth Amendment,” the opinion said.“Again, Defendants suggest that the Court ’effectively reaffirmed’ the constitutionality of life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. The Graham court did not expressly consider that issue, however, and much of its reasoning could be read to call into question the constitutionality of such sentences.”

As the ACLU case progresses, the now-20-year-old Maxey remains an inmate at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer County, Michigan.

Yana Kunichoff is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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