Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Wayne State University

Public Relations

WSU study: Michiganians oppose state law on sentencing youths as adults

November 17, 2005
A new Wayne State University study shows that Michigan citizens disapprove of many state policies and practices in the sentencing and confinement of juveniles, particularly those allowing youths to be sentenced to terms in adult prisons for natural life without the possibility of parole.

Since 1988, more than 300 youths have been sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP) in Michigan, the state with the third-highest LWOP sentencing total after Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

The Michigan total is included in a new national report on US children sentenced to LWOP; Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released the report on Oct. 12.

The Wayne State study, a statewide poll conducted by the Center for Urban Studies on behalf of Assistant Professors Sheryl Pimlott Kubiak and Terrence Allen and Associate Professor Anthony King, all of the School of Social Work, found that only 5 percent of Michigan residents supported juveniles serving life without parole in adult facilities. Moreover, Michigan citizens were strongly opposed to juveniles 16 and younger being housed in adult correctional facilities. Participants also believe that juveniles can be rehabilitated.

Allen presented the study at an Oct. 25 news conference in the Michigan Capitol. At the conference, State Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) introduced a legislation package that would prohibit sentencing an individual convicted of a crime before the age of 18 to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole.

In the WSU study, each respondent was asked questions to assess their views on sentencing juveniles convicted of violent offenses. The more information each was given, the less likely the person was to support juvenile LWOP. For example, respondents were asked, “Michigan has a law that requires an adolescent to be sentenced to life without any possibility of parole for certain offenses. How strongly do you agree or disagree with this?” Forty-one percent said they agreed. However, when given clarifying information (that is, the sentence would be in an adult facility) and a range of options (for example, parole and combinations of juvenile and adult sentencing), only 5 percent believed that LWOP in an adult facility was an appropriate sentence.

Nearly 80 percent of respondents believed that adolescents 14, 15 and 16 should not be imprisoned in adult prisons. Perhaps most important, more than 72 percent believed adolescents younger than 18 who commit violent offenses are strong candidates for rehabilitation.

To further illuminate the views of Michigan citizens, WSU researchers asked them about adolescents in general. Wayne State found that only 26 percent of Michigan residents believe that adolescents between 12 and 17 years old are as responsible as adults.

Furthermore, 83 percent supported considering adolescents' underdeveloped ability to control impulses and understand the consequences of their actions.

Similarly, Michigan residents thought that abuse histories should be taken into account. Only 31 percent believed that adolescents abused as children should receive the same sentence as an adult for committing a violent offense.

“The preliminary results of this study suggest that the people in the state of Michigan are unequivocally against locking children up for life,” Allen said. “Moreover, the study challenges legislatures to listen to their constituents and develop policies that are socially proactive."
Kubiak added, “Because public sentiment is often used as a catalyst for legislation, it is important to have reliable and valid data when assessing public opinion.” A full report of these findings will be available in November.
5700 Cass Avenue, 3100 Academic Administration Building * Detroit, Michigan 48202
Phone (313) 577-2150 * Fax (313) 577-4459 * Newsline (313) 577-5345