In Michigan, An Opportunity for Parole for Juveniles Given Life Sentences

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In Michigan, inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles have been riding a legislative rollercoaster. Ever since this past June, when U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for minors convicted of murder, juvenile lifers have eagerly awaited the state’s final decision on whether the ruling would be retroactive, meaning it applied to those already convicted.

Initially, the Michigan Court of Appeals said no — that because of a lack of resources, only present and future cases would be considered for resentencing. But now, less than three months after the Court of Appeal’s decision, a higher court has reversed that decision. Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara of the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed the decision, ruling that the state’s 358 juvenile lifers (the second highest number of any state) will have a meaningful opportunity at release.

One of those inmates is 40-year-old Efren Paredes Jr., a Michigan man who at age 16 was convicted of his boss’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Paredes denies any role in the murder. He has been serving a life without parole sentence for the past 24 years. Youth Radio first talked with Paredes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and again when the Court of Appeals initially denied that the new law would apply retroactively.

“I had hopes for a positive decision,” he said during a phone conversation in November. “But I was prepared for a negative decision because we have a conservative Court of Appeals here in Michigan. I was trying to be realistic.”

Under the new ruling, Paredes will be eligible for a parole hearing, possibly as soon as next year.

Michigan isn’t the only state wrestling with the question of retroactivity in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ban on juvenile life sentences. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, which has the highest number of juvenile lifers in the United States, and Massachusetts have yet to decide whether the law will apply to past cases. Many stakeholders, including Paredes, believe that the Supreme Court will be called upon again to make a final decision as a result of murky state politics in regards to juvenile justice.

“I think state judges are thinking about elections,” Paredes said. “They don’t want to be looked upon as the court who… gave all of these juvenile lifers eligibility for parole.”

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