Michigan should ban mandatory life for juvenile offenders
By Aveion Cason
The United States is the only country in the world known to sentence children to life without the possibility of parole in prison. And while the practice still exists, it is mercifully falling out of favor: To date, 25 states and Washington, DC have banned this sentence entirely, and seven more have no one serving. But Michigan continues to condemn children to die behind bars. As a former Detroit Lions player, I am calling on Michigan lawmakers to end this inhumane punishment in our state by passing Senate Bills 848–851.
Michigan is a national outlier that has relied on excessive sentences far more than other states, and this legislation is a necessary step to bring us in line with the rest of the country. Again, half the states, including our neighbors in Ohio, have banned life without parole as a sentencing option for children altogether. Meanwhile, Michigan leads the nation with more than 100 people still serving this sentence. Worse still, 90 percent of life without parole sentences imposed on children since 2012 in Michigan have been imposed on children of color. People serving this sentence in our state currently have no opportunity to prove that they are more than their worst actions as children.
Research definitively shows that children are different from adults. As scientists who research brain development recognize, hundreds of studies show that teenagers are more impulsive, less capable of controlling emotions in intense situations, and not as able to weigh the possible consequences of their actions than adults. For these reasons, and because of what common sense and experience tells us, we do not allow people younger than 18 to sign contracts, serve on juries, or serve in the military. Lawmakers should also recognize these fundamental differences in determining sentencing practices.
Children have tremendous potential for positive change, and even children who have caused harm can experience profound growth. It’s well-established that teenagers “age out” of criminal behavior later in life. We see this transformation in action when people are released due to reforms in other states — in Pennsylvania, the recidivism rate of people formerly sentenced to life without parole as children who were released after resentencing is under two percent.
We should also consider what we lose when we keep people who aged out of crime decades ago behind bars. In my capacity as a member of the Players Coalition, I’ve become familiar with the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a group of people sent to prison as children who have since come home. They’ve turned their lives around, even after being told as children that they would die in prison. Today, they give back to their communities as parents, mentors, leaders, and advocates — in the case of Michigan, they’re doing things like leading legal advocacy efforts and running food ministries. Our communities are better off having these incredible people home.
None of this is to say that children who commit harm should not be held accountable for their actions or be guaranteed automatic release from prison. If passed, Senate Bills 848–851 would simply grant people sent to prison as children the opportunity for a second look in front of a parole board as adults. The review process would require consideration of age and circumstances of the offense, including the role each individual had in the offense. Rather than throwing away the key, these policies would ensure that Michigan provides a real chance to demonstrate positive transformation.
It is time for Michigan to end life without parole for children. I urge Michigan lawmakers to pass Senate Bills 848–851 and give a chance at rehabilitation and redemption to Michigan’s children.
Aveion Cason is a former Detroit Lions running back, Players Coalition advocate and a supporter of youth justice.
*This story first appeared on the Sunday, April 17th print edition of the Detroit Free Press.