A new report released today highlights Wayne County’s frequent use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment. The report also criticizes D.A. Worthy’s decision, which was announced Friday, to again seek life sentences for at least one out of three individuals currently serving this sentence.
The report urges District Attorney Kym Worthy to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively, and that the punishment is only appropriate in the rarest of cases where a juvenile is determined to be “irreparably corrupt.”
The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Wayne County: Time to Join the Growing National Consensus?, notes that Wayne County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country now that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has recently announced that he will not be seeking LWOP sentences for any of the individuals previously sentenced to JLWOP there.
Currently there are more than 150 individuals serving JLWOP in Wayne County. While Wayne County has just 18% of the statewide population, it has at least 40% of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan. Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39% of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90% of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are Black. D.A. Worthy’s office obtained 27 JLWOP sentences during her tenure.
“There is growing national consensus that life without parole is an inappropriate sentence for kids,” said Rob Smith of the Fair Punishment Project. “D.A. Worthy’s decision to again seek life without parole for one out of three individuals who were convicted as juveniles is completely out of line with the Supreme Court’s ruling, mounting scientific research, the practices of prosecutors across the country, and years of experience that have shown us that youth are capable of change and deserve an opportunity to earn their release.”
The report notes that the Supreme Court has set a high bar to justify a life without parole sentence for juveniles. Given that adolescent brains are not fully developed and the capacity that children have to change, the Court rightfully assumes that it will be rare for an individual to meet the standard required for a JLWOP sentence. The report notes that D.A. Worthy’s decision doesn’t go nearly far enough in limiting the use of JLWOP, as it ignores mounting scientific evidence and a growing national consensus against the punishment.