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County prosecutors voice opposition to juvenile lifer reform bills

John Dewane Headshot
Ingham County Prosecutor's Office
Ingham County Prosecutor John Dewane is among the group pushing back against the proposed legislation.

Dozens of Michigan county prosecutors, including the chief prosecuting attorneys for Eaton and Ingham counties, are voicing opposition to bills in the state legislature that could make it possible for those sentenced to life in prison as juveniles to receive parole.

Proposals being debated in a Michigan House committee would abolish the sentence of life without parole for those 18 and younger. They would also give offenders sentenced at those ages the option to request a parole hearing after serving at least 10 years in prison.

Sponsors of the bills say the reforms would give young offenders a second chance. The proposals have bipartisan backing.

But some county prosecutors in the state say the changes could deny justice to the families of victims. Nearly 60 of them signed on to a Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM) statement that asserts the proposals would make communities less safe.

"Michigan has a workable framework for ensuring that juveniles receive fair and just sentences," the statement reads. "The proposed bills needlessly jeopardize the safety of our citizens and communities." 

A recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling only allows minors to be sentenced to life without parole if prosecutors establish the crime committed by the individual "reflects irreparable corruption." The current system permits prosecutors to charge young offenders with a minimum sentence of 25-40 years in prison and a maximum of 60 years.

If the bills were enacted, prosecutors would be prohibited from seeking a life in prison sentence for offenders aged 18 and younger.

Ingham County prosecutor John Dewane, who is one of the signatories of the PAAM statement, says his office should be allowed to seek the charge in extreme cases. He claimed extending the possibility of parole would hurt the families of victims.

“Being a frontline prosecutor handling these murder cases, you don't understand the impact that this has on loved ones, family members, and it goes far down from just the immediate family,” Dewane said.

Dewane says the proposed legislation would also make the release of violent offenders possible. He adds individuals like the Oxford High School shooter would be able to apply for parole under the bills—something he called "unconscionable."

“I don't believe that that person who's committed that heinous of a crime should even have the eligibility to be reviewed for parole after 10 years,” Dewane said.

Bill sponsors say they’re crafting amendments to the bills that would ensure juveniles sentenced for acts of mass murder would not be considered for release.

Dewane says that change would alleviate some of his concerns, but he wants to see the changes in the proposal's language.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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