Bobby Hines was fresh out of eighth grade when he and two older boys confronted a suspected drug dealer in Detroit whom they believed had stolen a friend’s coat. The confrontation turned into an argument and one of Hines’ buddies pulled out a gun and shot and killed the man.
The shooter was later charged with second-degree murder and given the possibility of parole. Hines, who was 15 at the time, was charged with felony murder for participating in a robbery that resulted in a homicide.
Although Hines never pulled a trigger or even held a weapon that day, he was sentenced, under Michigan law, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was offered a plea bargain deal, with the chance to serve 20 to 40 years if he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder. But the middle-schooler simply didn’t understand the deal, according to Deborah LaBelle, who authored a report released on Tuesday about the systematic disadvantages facing juveniles who are placed within the adult criminal justice system.
And today, 22 years later, Hines is still behind bars.
“Juveniles are getting sentenced more harshly than adults because of their inability to negotiate the adult criminal justice system,” LaBelle, the director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, told The Huffington Post.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to experts. And five states — California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania — account for two-thirds of all youths younger than 18 currently serving natural life sentences. This means that they will likely die behind bars.
In Michigan, children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies can be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced accordingly. Michigan ranks second behind Pennsylvania with more than 370 young people thus far having been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to LaBelle’s report, “Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth.”
The report, released in conjunction with Second Chance 4 Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union, details wide-ranging differences in the way the states sentence their youth. It also highlights the financial and human costs of juvenile life-without-parole sentences and vast racial disparities.
Juveniles charged with a killing in which the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was black, according to the report.
In Michigan, 73 percent of youths serving life sentences are racial minorities, even though minority youths comprise only 29 percent of the state’s youth population.
The disparity shows up in other trends. “Nationwide, black youths represent just 28% of juvenile arrests, yet they account for 35% of juvenile defendants who are waived to adult court,” the report stated.
The entire report summary can be found in the Huffington Post