Michigan Supreme Court Expansion of Youth Sentencing, State Appellate Defender Office Response, and What’s Next


A decision of the United States Supreme Court in 2016 created an extraordinary constitutional crisis involving 364 children serving life without parole sentences in Michigan. Montgomery v. Louisiana (footnote 1) required resentencing of all people serving mandatory sentences of life without parole for offenses committed as youth because the sentences violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In deciding whether to impose sentences of life without parole, courts needed to consider:

1. chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences;
2. the youth’s surrounding family and home environment;
3. the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of participation in the conduct and the impact of familial and peer pressures;
4. the impact of youth on the charge and conviction – for example, the inability to deal with police or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement), or the inability to assist counsel; and
5. the possibility of rehabilitation.

A unit of lawyers and mitigation specialists at SADO represents most of the people impacted by this decision. As an office with social workers on staff and a culture of presenting sentencing mitigation, SADO stepped up and formed the Juvenile Lifer Unit. The Unit consists now of five attorneys, three mitigation specialists, and one reentry coordinator. 

SADO’s Juvenile Lifer Unit represented 193 of Michigan’s 364 juvenile lifers, and 148 of these clients have now received a sentence offering the opportunity for parole. A total of 72 SADO clients have been released on parole or discharged from the Michigan Department of Corrections. According to MDOC, of 168 former lifers released, only one has reoffended, while Michigan’s standard recidivism rate is 23.6%.(footnote 2) SADO’s Project Reentry develops Comprehensive Reentry Plans to assist with the return to the community, holds monthly workshops (footnote 3) and published a Reentry Guidebook (footnote 4) and a Reentry Services Locator (footnote 5).

Michigan Supreme Court Decisions Provide
Greater Protection To Youth

On July 28, 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court issued multiple decisions expanding the Montgomery decision and recognizing that the factors of youth should apply in more sentencing situations. The Court first looked at life without parole sentences for 18-year-olds and parolable life sentences for youth.

In People v. Parks (footnote 6), the Court held that a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for an 18-year-old on direct appeal constituted cruel or unusual punishment under the Michigan Constitution. At the same time, the Court sent People v. Poole (footnote 7) back to the Court of Appeals for further consideration and to determine if the holding in Parks applied to Mr. Poole. The Court of Appeals will determine whether the decision applies to 18-year-olds whose direct appeals have finished. In People v. Stovall (footnote 8), the Court held that a parolable life sentence for a youth convicted of second-degree murder violates Michigan’s constitution.

The Court also clarified in People v. Taylor (footnote 9) that at sentencing hearings for youth, where a judge is considering life without parole, the prosecution bears the burden to overcome a presumption that this sentence is disproprtionate. A life without parole sentence for a youthful offender must be truly rare.

Finally, the Court examined term-of-years sentence for youth convicted of first degree murder in People v. Boykin (footnote 10). The Court held that trial courts must consider youth as a mitigating factor when imposing a term-of-years sentence. 

Next Steps For New Sentencing Hearings

According to Michigan Department of Corrections records, 77 people are serving sentences of life with parole for offenses committed as youth and 274 people are serving life without parole sentences for offenses committed as eighteen-year-olds. Per the Stovall decision, each of the 77 people will require a new sentencing hearing, while new sentencing hearings for the 274 18-year-olds await the Poole decision. Taken together, these decisions will likely require 351 new sentencing hearings.

SADO is examining options to make sure that everybody who needs a new sentencing hearing gets a lawyer – whether from SADO, a local public defender, or a volunteer attorney. Many people have waited years for a fair sentence, and it is frustrating to keep waiting, but the Parks decision is a start and SADO expects new sentencing hearings to start as the law continues to clarify.

Next Steps For Development of the Law

Some of the sentencing arguments that attorneys from SADO and the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System to advance include:

the need for the mitigating factors of youth to be considered in all sentences for youth beyond first- or second-degree murder;
whether mandatory life without parole sentences for youth between the ages of 19-to-25 are cruel or unusual punishment under the Michigan Constitution;
whether lengthy term-of-years sentences for offenses committed by youth are cruel or unusual punishment under the Michigan Constitution;
whether a life without parole sentence for felony murder for a youth is cruel or unusual punishment under the Michigan Constitution;
whether other types of sentences are cruel or unusual punishment under the Michigan Constitution including lifetime electronic monitoring, Sex Offender Registration Act, and certain mandatory minimum sentences.

Taken together, the new Michigan Supreme Court decisions present a remarkable opportunity to reduce mass incarceration by recognizing that children should not be sentenced in the same manner as adults.
by Jonathan Sacks, Director
State Appellate Defender Office