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Michigan lawmakers want to get rid of life without parole sentence for juveniles

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been more than a decade since the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for young people convicted of murder constitute cruel and unusual punishment. That decision allowed some people convicted as juveniles to leave prison as adults. And now in Michigan, some state lawmakers are pushing to eliminate life without parole sentences for juveniles. Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: Efren Paredes Jr. has been serving a life sentence without parole since he was 15 years old. He was convicted of murder for the 1989 killing of a Michigan grocery store owner.

EFREN PAREDES JR: All my adult years have been here, teenage years, 20s, 30s, 40s, and in April, it'll be all my 40s. I'll be 50.

JOKISCH POLO: It was in 2012 that the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. Later, when the court ruled the decision was retroactive, it gave Paredes and nearly 400 others a chance to receive a lower sentence. Defense attorney Deborah LaBelle says the state still has one of the highest number of people waiting for a second chance hearing. In Michigan, prosecutors continue to push for harsh sentences for those who do have one.

DEBORAH LABELLE: It's almost as if they're feeling like, well, if I was wrong then, you know, what does that say? I won't admit that I was wrong.

JOKISCH POLO: In the juvenile court system, rehabilitation has long been the primary goal. Both the U.S. and Michigan Supreme Court have ruled that only in rare cases when a minor is considered irreparably corrupt can they receive life without parole. Paredes says the changes he's made while in prison show he's a very different person today.

PAREDES: Not only have I completed every available program, I've helped create programs that would not only enrich my own life but the lives of my peers, and I've also worked hard on issues outside of prison.

JOKISCH POLO: Michigan lawmakers like state Senator Jeff Irwin say it's beyond time to get rid of the life without parole sentences for juveniles, and there are legislative proposals in the works that call for doing so.

JEFF IRWIN: We need to make sure that our laws and our sentencing guidelines are aligned, and locking someone up when they're a child and throwing away the key forever is something that the Supreme Court has said is just too far.

JOKISCH POLO: It may be easier now for young people convicted of murder to face spending the rest of their life in prison because of the Supreme Court. In a 6 to 3 decision two years ago, the court ruled judges don't have to find a juvenile was incorrigible before handing down a life without parole sentence. Michigan prosecutor Chris Becker says he'll continue to seek that sentence for juveniles if he feels it's warranted. He also says the resentencing hearings put a strain on the families of victims and his office.

CHRIS BECKER: Because, you know, we got to try and track down these boxes of files from years ago, some of them that we are having problems finding. Then we got to try and figure out how we're going to reach the victims' families that are impacted by all these.

JOKISCH POLO: In a hearing in 2008, the wife of the grocery store owner Paredes was convicted of killing acknowledged he had made significant strides in prison but said he should serve his full sentence. And for now, that's what Efren Paredes will do. He's one of 11 people in the state who was resentenced to life without parole. He's filed an appeal and says the legislative efforts to eliminate life without parole for juveniles who commit serious crimes can't come soon enough.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo in East Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Jokisch Polo
As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.