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Juvenile Offenders Sentenced To Life Can Face Harsher Treatment Than Adults: Report

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Bobby Hines was fresh out of eighth grade when he and two older boys confronted a suspected drug dealer in Detroit whom they believed had stolen a friend’s coat. The confrontation turned into an argument and one of Hines' buddies pulled out a gun and shot and killed the man.

The shooter was later charged with second-degree murder and given the possibility of parole. Hines, who was 15 at the time, was charged with felony murder for participating in a robbery that resulted in a homicide.

Although Hines never pulled a trigger or even held a weapon that day, he was sentenced, under Michigan law, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was offered a plea bargain deal, with the chance to serve 20 to 40 years if he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder. But the middle-schooler simply didn’t understand the deal, according to Deborah LaBelle, who authored a report released on Tuesday about the systematic disadvantages facing juveniles who are placed within the adult criminal justice system.

And today, 22 years later, Hines is still behind bars.

“Juveniles are getting sentenced more harshly than adults because of their inability to negotiate the adult criminal justice system,” LaBelle, the director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, told The Huffington Post.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to experts. And five states -- California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- account for two-thirds of all youths younger than 18 currently serving natural life sentences. This means that they will likely die behind bars.

In Michigan, children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies can be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced accordingly. Michigan ranks second behind Pennsylvania with more than 370 young people thus far having been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to LaBelle’s report, “Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth.”

The report, released in conjunction with Second Chance 4 Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union, details wide-ranging differences in the way the states sentence their youth. It also highlights the financial and human costs of juvenile life-without-parole sentences and vast racial disparities.

Juveniles charged with a killing in which the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was black, according to the report.

In Michigan, 73 percent of youths serving life sentences are racial minorities, even though minority youths comprise only 29 percent of the state’s youth population.

The disparity shows up in other trends. "Nationwide, black youths represent just 28% of juvenile arrests, yet they account for 35% of juvenile defendants who are waived to adult court," the report stated.

“There is just so much wrong with the original idea of putting youth in the adult system that we didn’t think through as a society,” said Ashley Nellis, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group that aims to reform sentencing laws. “Now we’re coming to see how many injustices there really are [in] the way we are sentencing youth from the very start.”

In March the Sentencing Project released its own report that compiled data about 1,579 individuals nationwide who had been sentenced as juveniles to life sentences without parole; this sample represented about 60 percent of American juveniles serving such a sentence. The report, "The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey," documented "high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments, sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation."

Young defendants encountered disadvantages from the start, according to the report released yesterday. The attorneys representing youths sentenced to life without parole in Michigan have been disciplined by the state bar at an extraordinary rate. Some 38 percent of lawyers representing youths sentenced to life without parole “have been publicly sanctioned or disciplined for egregious violations of ethical conduct,” compared with a rate of just 5 percent for other attorneys.

Juveniles also reject plea offers at much higher rates than adults, according to the findings. So often adults receive lesser sentences for comparable crimes. LaBelle and other experts say that juveniles are less equipped to negotiate plea offers as a result of their “immaturity, inexperience and failure to realize the value of a plea deal.” Many of them reported that they didn’t understand the nature of their charges or even the meaning of parole, LaBelle said. When represented by a lawyer who hadn't been disciplined, juveniles were 43 percent more likely to accept a plea bargain for a lesser crime than those who were represented by an lawyer who had been disciplined.

Jody Kent, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said the current system that allows juvenile offenders to be sent to prison for life has essentially "declared these young people irredeemable.”

"We know that young people are capable of change, and we really need to set up a system that allows us to take their age into consideration,” Kent told HuffPost. “Children are fundamentally different than adults and that difference needs to be placed in the context of sentencing and how we hold young people accountable.”

The report urges lawmakers to strike down life-without-parole sentences for those younger than 18 and to conduct periodic parole reviews and public hearings every five years. It also calls for parole reviews for juveniles serving life sentences with the possibility of parole after 10 years.

“We are compounding the tragedy of serious crime by virtually throwing away the lives of these children,” the Rev. Joe Summers of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, said in a statement. “The idea that youth can never change flies in the face of all that we know and is against any sense of moral redemption.”

Gracie Hines, the mother of Bobby Hines, told a gaggle of reporters, supporters and activists on Tuesday at a press conference in Lansing, Mich., to announce the report, that she hopes and prays that her son will be released from prison one day.

"He has grown and he deserves to be out of there,” Gracie Hines said, according to reports.

“He calls to say, 'I thought about you,'" she said. "This child left me at the age of 15, and when you visit it's like you don't want to leave because that is still my baby, although 38 years old now."

"He is a very strong young man, and I think very highly of him. I speak very highly of him. And being in the wrong place at the wrong time, yes, got him caught up."

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to properly cite a report finding: In cases with a white victim, offenders were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in those with a black victim. A prior version incorrectly contrasted cases with white victims and those with nonblack victims.

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