Sausage, legislation, and Will Rogers didn’t say it

I’ve never watched sausage made, but I’m pretty sure John Godfrey Saxe was right.  The process of making legislation involves a lot of chopping and squishing and other things you’d rather not see, smell, or hear.

As I promised last week, however, I’m back to lead a tour of the kitchen and the upcoming bills that affect juvenile lifers in Michigan.  Start this way, as we walk into the messy middle of things.

Last year the Supreme Court changed the recipe, and now Michigan and other states have some cooking to do.  The Court has ruled 5-4: no, you may not have laws that require you to sentence children less than eighteen to life without parole.

What this means: Juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole.  But now the judge must have a choice; even in cases that used to require life without parole, period.

So, let’s look first at House Bill 4806.  This bill applies to prisoners who were sentenced before January 1, 2014, under the age of eighteen and are now serving mandatory life sentences without parole.  Key word, mandatory.

The House bill is intended to deal with past sentences, not future ones.  It allows either side–prosecutor or prisoner–to ask the court for resentencing.  It also allows both sides to have input.  There are three options for the new sentence:

*Life without parole (again)
*Life with possibility of parole
*A term of years at the judge’s discretion

The Michigan Senate, however, would like to limit any future leniency.  Senate Bill 319 deals with cases after January 1, 2014, and it is severe.

The options it includes:

*Life without parole (again)
*Life with possibility of parole after 45 years.

In effect, the Senate hopes to come as close as possible to nullifying the Supreme Court’s ruling.  A term of years, as suggested by the House, is not even an option.  Judges once again have very little discretion in creating a sentence to fit a particular case.

Both bills, however, require the court to consider factors including the child or teen’s home life, age and mental development.

Still with me?  Ready to go on?

House Bill 4807 makes no real change to the law.  It deals with family court jurisdiction over juveniles and involves a few word changes and an update of agency names.  Legal copy-editing, more or less.

House Bill 4808 updates sentences for the Michigan Penal Code, and it does so by adding clauses based on the passage of Senate Bill 319.  In other words, sentences remain the same, except for adding a possibility of parole for juvenile lifers after forty-five years.

We now get to the end of the mess–almost.  This is House Bill 4809 and Senate Bill 318.

Both of these bills have to do with the way parole hearings are conducted, and also with eligibility for parole.  Believe me, this is important.  House Bill 4809 contains what could be, from a prisoner’s perspective, a very nasty change.

First, the Senate bill (SIB 318) reflects Bill 319.  Certain crimes are not eligible for parole except in the case of juvenile lifers after forty-five years if the court allowed them life with parole.

The rest is the law as it stands.  Prisoners serving life sentences eligible for parole may see the parole board after fifteen years.  They must review the prisoner’s file every five years after that.  A public hearing is required before parole is granted or denied.

The House, on the other hand, would presumably like to save time and money.  House Bill 4809 allows the parole board to go no further than an interview with the prisoner conducted by one member of the parole board every two years.  If the board declines to conduct a public hearing, parole is considered to be denied.  The mandatory five year file-review and public hearing is removed from the law altogether.

If this change in the law is passed, prisoners will lose the chance to talk with board members who may see things differently than their interviewer.  Under the new system, even though one board member alone does not determine parole, he or she is placed in a position of strong influence.  It may be a cheaper way–but I’m not convinced it will be a fair one.

Time to wrap up, and we now exit the kitchen, glad for the fresh air.  For those who have stuck it out this long, thanks for coming on the tour!  Next stop, a breakfast restaurant where we’ll have bacon, eggs, and sausage–though personally, I’ll be taking home a doggie bag.

***

Blogging next time: how a judge’s decision forces Michigan to apply the Supreme Court’s ruling to past cases; why House Bill 4806 still needs to be law; and a request from Efren.  I’ll also talk about why I’ve never supported parole for juvenile lifers before–but I’m changing my mind.

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