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Juvenile defenders

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Just 32 years old, Amy Black has already spent half her life in prison. At age 16 she assisted in a robbery committed in Muskegon by her then-boyfriend, who lawyers say killed the victim and then convinced Black to take the rap. Because Michigan law mandates that teens convicted of murder must spend the remainder of their lives in prison, that's the sentence she received.

The Michigan Court of Appeals has repeatedly decided this type of sentencing isn't cruel or unusual, and the state Supreme Court hasn't thought arguments otherwise are worth hearing. But according to a treaty signed by the United States more than a decade ago, sentencing juveniles to life without parole qualifies the state as a human rights violator.

So next week, Ann Arbor-based attorney Deborah LaBelle, a member of a national coalition of civil rights groups, is taking the matter to a higher forum — the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

"Michigan is particularly egregious when it comes to this law because there are so many kids in prison for felony murder, and the judge has no say," LaBelle says.

Michigan is one of 42 states that apply this type of law, but LaBelle says our bar is one of the lowest — any child 14 and older who's convicted of murder must to be sentenced to life without parole, no matter what the judge may think. LaBelle estimates that this mandatory sentence has been applied to more than 300 minors currently in state prisons.

Black's case is part of a larger review of alleged U.S. human rights abuses the coalition is presenting to the UN next week.

The committee should issue a "final observation" on the case July 28, but LaBelle admits a judgment is unlikely to have much effect here since there are no enforcement mechanisms.

"In some countries, an observation has a great deal of authority," she says. "It can become a scandal. The United States, however, hasn't always taken that position. It's up in the air whether anything happens."

But there's action on another front. After hearing from such activist groups as Second Chance in Rochester, state Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield) and state Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) introduced bills last session that would repeal the sentencing law.

Condino says he's "cautiously optimistic" that the Republican-controlled Legislature will take up the issue after the November elections, especially if the UN committee finds the laws to be an infringement on human rights.

"It would certainly give ammunition to lawmakers who say we can't be the country that stands with the UN against human rights violations and then puts its head in the sand when it comes to our own," he says. "Children shouldn't get a free get-out-of-jail card, but a judge should be able to do a case-by-base review to see whether there's any chance for rehabilitation."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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