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

Todd Ehlers
Flickr - creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

This story originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered.

It’s been more than a decade since The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for young people convicted of murder constituted cruel and unusual punishment. That decision allowed some people convicted as juveniles to leave prison as adults. In Michigan, some state lawmakers are pushing to eliminate the sentence.

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.

“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," he said.

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. And Michigan prosecutors continue to push for harsh sentences for those who do have one.

“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,'" Labelle said.

According to recent data from the Michigan Department of Corrections, 59 people in the state are still waiting for their second hearing. Wayne and Genesee counties have the highest number of people in the state waiting for a hearing.

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.

“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," he added.

In September 2015, Paredes was one of 20 prisoners selected to help develop a prison outreach component of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) program based at Michigan State University. MBK is a program that trains people to become mentors to at-risk African American boys, in grades 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools.

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

“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," Irwin said.

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. But it also held that individual states are free to do something different.

In July 2022 the Michigan Supreme Court did just that. It ruled in the case People v. Taylor that sentencing courts can only impose a life without parole sentence on a minor if the prosecutor can establish through "clear and convincing evidence" that the person is irreparably corrupt.

Michigan prosecutor Chris Becker in Kent County 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.

“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," Becker said.

Kent County has the highest number of people sentenced for a second time with life without parole.

Paredes’ wife, Maria Zavala Paredes, says she’s felt like her and children’s life are in some type of holding pattern since Efren's second sentence.

“Almost like if you're in quicksand, like somebody says, this is going to happen, you're expecting it to happen, but then they pull the rug underneath you and everything is like, no, he's not coming home just yet," she said.

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.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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