Clad in black and grey, Gracie Hines could have been dressed for a funeral. Addressing a press conference on Tuesday to release a report on juvenile sentences of life without parole within Michigan, she dabbed away tears behind her thin-framed glasses as she spoke about her son, Bobby.
“This child left me at the age of 15,” she said. “At 38 years old, he is now a very strong young man.”
As a middle-schooler, Bobby Hines found himself in a dangerous situation: he accompanied two older kids to confront a drug dealer over a dispute of stolen property. As the argument grew heated, one of his older friends shot the dealer.
Despite his age and his lack of a weapon, Hines was subsequently sentenced to life without parole. He has served 22 years of that sentence.
Bobby Hines’ case is just one of many that the report, “Basic Decency, Protecting the Human Rights of Children,” argue reflects a deeply flawed practice in Michigan’s justice system.
Notable items in the 38-page report include:
- Children as young as fourteen are tried and sentenced as adults, and over a fourth currently serving their sentences did not commit homicide themselves (rather, they were present during the crime, or they were aiding and abetting an adult co-defendant).
- More thanr one-third of children sentenced to life without parole were represented by counsel that had been disciplined for egregious violations of professional misconduct or sanctioned.
- African-American juvenile defendants who were sentenced to life without parole were 421% more likely than white juvenile defendants to have been represented by a disciplined attorney.
- Plea bargains are offered to white juvenile defendants 21.8% more often than African-American juvenile defendants.
Lawyer Deborah Labelle, of the ACLU Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, made special note that plea bargaining is one of the root causes of kids ending up with natural life sentences. She stated juveniles often cannot negotiate plea offers or understand them effectively.
“Kids do not understand the consequences of turning down a plea agreement,” she said. “Twenty years seems like a life sentence.”
The recommendations of the report call for deep reform to the law, including abolition of the sentence of life without parole for minors and a requirement that for future cases, a child’s circumstances be taken into consideration for appropriate, individualized sentencing.
It also calls for reviews of those children once sentenced who have now grown into adults behind bars.
“They deserve an opportunity for parole in a fair and meaningful way,” said Labelle.
(The report can be accessed at SecondChances4Youth.org.)