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6th Circuit Weighs Life Sentences for Juveniles

CINCINNATI (CN) - The 6th Circuit on Wednesday took on the thorny question of what to do about juvenile offenders who were sentenced to life without parole before the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated such punishment in 2012.

Michigan is one of several states that long required sentences of life without parole for certain juvenile criminals

The sentences, and all others like them, were eventually deemed cruel and unusual punishment by the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling in the case Miller v. Alabama.

In the wake of the high court's decision, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the sentences given to nine Michigan inmates under the invalided law.

U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O'Meara granted the plaintiffs an injunction in September 2013, and required the state to provide them with the opportunity to be paroled.

Bernard Restuccia of the Michigan attorney general's office attempted to convince the three-judge panel that the plaintiffs have no grounds for relief, as they brought their suit for constitutional rights violations.

Restuccia argued that in the wake of the ruling in Miller, "it is clear that this is a habeas claim" and that the "proper method [to seek relief] is to bring a habeas claim by challenging the sentencing."

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch was unmoved, and repeatedly asked Restuccia whether the distinction between a constitutional rights claim and a habeas proceeding even mattered.

She suggested the state simply "tell the parole board to take these people up [and] leave the sentences exactly as they are."

But Restuccia maintained the "process matters," and that the criminal cases should be remanded for resentencing.

He also urged the panel to delay a decision until after the Supreme Court decides whether the Miller ruling will be applied retroactively, a clarification that will come later this year when the Supreme Court decides Toca v. Louisiana.

Restuccia admitted that if the rule is applied retroactively, the parties may "eventually be on the same page."

U.S. Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. responded bluntly: "Why should we order you to do something you can resolve by yourselves?"

Attorney Deborah LaBelle spoke for the plaintiffs, and began by clarifying that "this case is about a statute that is unconstitutional. It does not challenge the convictions or sentencing, only that [the plaintiffs] have a right to be eligible for release."

She pointed out that the State is still enforcing the statute on prisoners not included in the suit, and said that "two of the youth have died while we are standing here."

Judge Stranch asked for a clarification on why the plaintiffs sought relief from constitutional violations and did not bring a habeas claim, as suggested by Restuccia.

LaBelle said a habeas claim would have been necessary only if the prisoners were challenging the conditions of their confinement, which they are not, and that a successful result for her clients would result in their eligibility for parole, not a guarantee of parole.

U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice B. Donald followed up by asking if the upcoming decision in Toca would affect her clients' case.

LaBelle concluded her arguments by responding that "it may or may not. The District Court's order is before us now. This is not about resentencing. It is about the parole statute that was found unconstitutional under Miller."

No timetable has been set for the panel's decision.

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