There’s a reason I didn’t murder my parents when I was a teenager: There were no firearms in the house. Now I am not an especially violent person. Today, there are even a few politicians I wouldn‘t want to kill. Nor was my home life abusive. But forty years ago I experienced all the raging hormones and feelings of frustration that pretty much every adolescent faces.
Eventually I sorted all this out, as most people do, and developed some perspective. But I wouldn‘t want to be judged forever by the way I was at fifteen, and I doubt that you would either.
Except that there are hundreds of people in Michigan prisons who made a horrible mistake that meant they will be judged forever by what they did as an adolescent. They killed someone. Today, they are locked up forever, without possibility of parole.
Some of them, maybe most of them, should be confined for the rest of their lives. But we need to change the way we think about prisons. We need to change our mentality, partly because we simply can’t afford to do anything else. We have more people in prison than does any of our surrounding states. We spend more money on prisons, both absolutely and per prisoner, than any nearby state.
And it’s killing us. We spend more on prisons than on higher education, and once again, the state is having trouble paying its bills. Even if that weren’t the case, there is something just plain wrong about decreeing that a teenager has to spend the rest of their life in a cage with no possibility of parole.
Paul Condino, a lawyer himself, points out that we are the only nation in the so-called civilized world that allows states to lock juveniles up and throw the key away. He doesn’t want to put young killers on the street. He just wants to keep society’s options open. He thinks they should get a hearing after a decade.
He also wants to end the practice of sentencing them to life without any possibility of parole. That takes any power away from officials in the future, who will have to deal with these prisoners thirty years from now. Responsibility without power makes no sense.
Sadly, even if Condino’s bills pass the full house, I doubt they have any chance in the Senate. The Republicans want to look like the tough law and order party in this election year, and Majority Leader Mike Bishop has rejected meaningful prison reform, even when pressed by other Republicans to do so.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm has sent mixed messages, letting Jack Kevorkian out but denying clemency to some battered women who probably never should have been jailed in the first place.
In a state drowning in politics, it’s nice to see someone trying to do the right thing. Maybe some day we’ll all grow up. In the meantime, let’s hope Paul Condino gets further with his cause than I think he will.