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Essay

Juveniles

By December 29, 2016 3 Comments
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by Jeff Munroe

When I was 15, I sent Olivia Newton John a love letter.

I thought of that embarrassing letter the other day when I heard a story about problems in my home state of Michigan concerning “juvenile lifers.”

There was this album cover of Olivia’s, where she gazed at me with dark eyes, a serious expression, and a denim shirt with one too many buttons unbuttoned. I wrote asking her out – well, I sort of asked her out, since she’d have to do the driving and come from Australia to Flint, Michigan, for our date. But the album cover said, “If You Love Me, Let Me Know,” and I figured the polite thing to do was to answer her.

(By the way, I wish I could say I left these junior high urges behind in junior high, but I have a clear memory of being a sophomore in college, sitting in the second row at a concert, and shouting “Right now!” to Linda Rondstadt when she raised the musical question, “When Will I Be Loved?” She clearly heard me because instead of offering an invitation back to her dressing room for a drink and a get-to-know-you chat, she looked at me like she wished she had a stun gun.)

I am awfully glad the rest of my life has not been decided by the stupidity of those moments.

However, if I had done something beyond stupid and truly heinous as a teenager, my life would be defined by it. Michigan has the second largest amount of juvenile lifers in the nation. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that sending minors to life without a chance for parole is cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. In a later ruling, the Court made their decision retroactive, meaning that hundreds of people in Michigan should have a chance to go free. The court said what common sense and my experience with Olivia Newton John tells us: that until our cognitive abilities are fully developed in adulthood, we should have less moral culpability for our actions. The court also said that only in the rarest of cases of irretrievable depravity should someone be considered beyond hope for rehabilitation.prisoners

Around the country, tough on crime states like Texas and Utah have enacted legislation outlawing life without parole for juveniles. But in Michigan, we apparently have a staggering amount of irretrievable depravity. One by one, in case after case, our county prosecutors are arguing to keep people locked up forever.

Make no mistake – these are cases of murder where there is no question of guilt. These people did horrific things. Good, decent families have been ripped apart by their actions. But what is the point in keeping people who daily exhibit normal behavior in their 50s and 60s imprisoned for something they did in their teens? How does this help anyone? Pennsylvania has enacted a common sense law, saying anyone who was sentenced to life as a minor is eligible for parole after 25 years in prison. It doesn’t guarantee parole, just a chance to have the case reviewed. For some reason, Michigan can’t bring itself to that sort of wisdom.

What decisions and actions that we take as teens should apply for the rest of our lives? When I was 15, in addition to having a crush on Olivia Newton John, I also gave my life to Jesus Christ. That decision has stuck (I also did it when I was 12 and 13 and 14 and a few more times after 15). I am defined to this day by that decision. But even there, I see great change. Certainty has given way to ambiguity, yet somehow doubt has yielded to inevitability. I am a lot more comfortable with mystery. I believe the same story, but not in the same way. Indeed, something would be wrong if late in middle age I had the faith of a 15-year-old.

The United States is the only country in the world that sends children to prison with no chance for parole. Michigan is one of the only states where prosecutors are fighting hard to ensure juvenile lifers stay in prison. It makes no sense to me.

Jeff Munroe is the Vice President of Operations and Advancement at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 

3 Comments

  • William Botts says:

    A well written and thoughtful article. It is sad that we have a tendency to throw away such young lives with no thought of redemption. I hope our legislature will revisit this topic soon and make some necessary changes.

  • Jonathan says:

    The point guy in Michigan for resisting this change is our self-serving State Attorney General, Bill Schuette. He is widely expected to be the Republican candidate for governor in 2018 when Snyder is term limited out. Many observers agree that he wants to be seen as tough on crime and criminals as he goes in to that campaign. The Christian community should be all over him for that.

  • ottens2013 says:

    Good to have you back “on line,” Jeff. You have the writer’s gift of using humor and irony to drive home sobering truths. Pontificating is neither necessary nor effective.

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