LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
A patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers
DETROIT — Courtroom 801 is nearly empty when guards bring in Bobby Hines in handcuffs.
More than 27 years ago, Hines stood before a judge to answer for his role in killing a man over a friend’s drug debt. He was 15 then, just out of eighth grade. Another teen fired the shot that killed 21-yearold James Warren. But Hines had said something like, “Let him have it,” sealing his punishment: life in prison with no chance for parole.
The judgment came during an era when many states, fearing teen “superpredators,” enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults, making the U.S. an international outlier.
But five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Last year, it made clear that applies equally to more than 2,000 who already were serving the sentence.
Prison gates, though, don’t just swing open.
The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states and found that uncertainty and opposition stirred by the court’s rulings have resulted in an uneven patchwork, with the odds of release or continued imprisonment varying widely.
Many victims’ families are battling to keep offenders in prison. “They already had their chance, their days in court, their due process,” says Candy Cheatham, whose father was killed by 14-year-old Evan Miller, the Alabama inmate at the center of the 2012 ruling. “To bring this up and make the victims’ families relive this, that’s being cruel and unusual.”
Hines, though, is in a county whose prosecutor has shown openness to paroling some juvenile lifers. Now 43, he bows his head when the murdered man’s sister, Valencia Warren Gibbs, stands to address the judge.
“I want him to be out,” she says. “I want him to give himself a chance that he didn’t give himself … that day.”
The Supreme Court’s decision last year was the fourth to find the harshest punishments are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual when imposed on teens. Justices cited research showing adolescents’ brains are still developing, making them susceptible to peer pressure and likelier to act recklessly without considering consequences.
Officials in states with the most juvenile life cases long argued the ban on mandatory life without parole did not apply retroactively. Now, the AP found, states are heading in decidedly different directions. Some have resentenced and released these inmates. Others are pushing back, denying any real opportunity for a reduced term or possible parole.
“It’s taking far too long to get … judges and prosecutors to understand that the mandates of the Supreme Court are not optional,” says John O’Hair, who saw more than 90 juveniles sentenced to life when he was prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, but has since criticized how some in his state are responding.
Pennsylvania has resentenced more than 100 of its 517 juvenile lifers, and released 58. Attorneys there talk about working through all the cases in three years. Just two Pennsylvania inmates have been resentenced to life without parole, which the nation’s highest court said should be reserved for the rare offender who “exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.”
In Michigan, prosecutors want new no-parole terms for some 236 of 363 juvenile lifers, prompting lawsuits. And most of the cases are on hold until Michigan’s Supreme Court decides whether judges or juries should hear them.
“These are young Hannibal Lecters,” says Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County, where officials want no-parole sentences in 44 of 49 juvenilelifer cases.
Thirteen other states have passed legislation prohibiting life without parole for juveniles since 2012. In 2014, Hawaii lawmakers approved a measure that excludes life without parole for those 17 and younger. Hawaii has no juvenile lifers.
While many states have taken steps to make juvenile offenders eligible for parole, officials regularly deny release. In Missouri, the parole board turned down 20 of 23 juvenile lifers for release, says the MacArthur Justice Center, which sued.
At Hines’ resentencing in March, the judge weighed his case before sentencing him to 27 to 60 years, making him immediately eligible for parole. He’s due to be released Sept. 12.
“I know what I’m not going to do,” he says, “and that’s get in trouble.”
Valencia Warren Gibbs, addresses the court during a March hearing for her brother’s killer, Bobby Hines, at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit. Gibbs and family have forgiven Hines for the murder of her brother, James Warren. INSET: A school identification card for Bobby Hines, 15 at the time of Warren’s murder.