DETROIT — Prosecutors urged Michigan's highest court Thursday to keep prison gates closed on more than 350 inmates serving no-parole sentences, despite a groundbreaking 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that treats teenagers who've been convicted of murder differently than adults.
The Michigan Supreme Court will determine whether that decision should be applied retroactively to people already in prison, some for decades. The U.S. Supreme Court gave no clear guidance on that issue, and states subsequently have applied it inconsistently.
Judges no longer can automatically give a sentence of life without parole to someone convicted of a murder committed under the age of 18. They're first entitled to a hearing where a judge can weigh their culpability in the crime as well as their maturity, education and childhood.
"Youth matters," said Jonathan Sacks, deputy director of the state office that files appeals on behalf of convicts.
The offender still may get a life sentence, but he or she could also receive a sentence that carries a shot at parole down the road — and that's the same opportunity that current inmates want.
Patricia Selby, an attorney for Raymond Carp, who was 15 when he was involved in a murder in St. Clair County, said the U.S. Supreme Court made a "substantive" change in constitutional law — a key legal standard — and it must be applied equally to people behind bars, not just future defendants.
"This is the crux of the issue," Justice Mary Beth Kelly said. "If it's substantive, it gets retroactive application."
But the Michigan attorney general's office argued that the U.S. Supreme Court decision simply changed the sentencing procedure and shouldn't be applied to current inmates.
Hilary Georgia of the St. Clair County prosecutor's office said "finality" should be an important consideration by the court. She said it would be impossible to have new, meaningful sentencing hearings in cases that are decades old.
Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., however, said any difficulty has nothing to do with the court's duty to apply the state and federal constitutions.
The arguments in Lansing were streamed online on the court's website. Kelly and Young were the most active, peppering lawyers with questions. Kelly repeatedly pointed out details in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that a trial judge must consider when sentencing a teen, especially culpability.
Attorney General Bill Schuette opposes new sentencing hearings for current prisoners who have exhausted all appeals. In his public comments, he has mostly based his opposition on concern for the emotional well-being of relatives of murder victims who don't want to see cases reopened. But that specific pitch wasn't made by his staff Thursday.
Separately, Sacks urged the justices to declare that no-parole sentences can never be given to 14-year-olds. He represents Dakotah Eliason, a Berrien County boy who was 14 when he killed his grandfather in 2010.
Sacks said someone that young has a chance for rehabilitation, but Young was skeptical of choosing a specific age.
"You've pulled a number out of the air. ... Some 12-year-olds are more mature than 16-year-olds. Why would we pick an arbitrary cutoff?" Young said.
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