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Raising Awareness About Juvenile Justice

The DRC will present the film 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story on October 14, 2015 at the Michigan Theatre. The film shows the life of Kenneth who was 14 when he was convinced by a 24-year-old neighborhood crack dealer — his mother's supplier — to join him on a month-long spree of four armed robberies. Kenneth’s accomplice planned heists in Tampa, Florida and carried the gun. For his limited role in the crimes, Kenneth was tried as an adult and received four consecutive life sentences and has no opportunity for parole.

There are more than 2,500 juveniles serving mandatory life sentences in the U.S., including over 350 in Michigan. In the 1990s, states passed laws allowing more juveniles to be tried as adults and receive mandatory life sentences because of a perceived rise in violent youth crimes. Mandatory life sentences remove the judge’s discretion in sentencing and do not allow the judge to consider a juvenile’s developmental immaturity or related social and emotional deficits, which may impair a juvenile’s decision-making capabilities and diminish criminal culpability.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional. The lower courts were then left to decide whether the new Supreme Court case should be applied retroactively and allow juveniles with mandatory life sentences to be resentenced. This legal issue is still being litigated.

After the film, Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Timothy Connors will moderate a panel of experts on the legal and social issues surrounding mandatory life sentences for juveniles. Confirmed panelists include Attorney Deb LaBelle, who has been at the forefront of litigating juvenile lifer cases, and Dr. Brian Sellers, EMU criminologist who specializes in studying juveniles in the criminal justice system. Other experts in the treatment and rehabilitation of juveniles in prison are expected to participate as well.

Funded by Ann Arbor, MI (August 2015)