When Machelle Pearson learned last July that her life sentence would be vacated, she sent home a sepia-toned Polaroid of her late mother that she’d kept in a Bible during her 33 years of incarceration. But then her hopes of release were dashed. Pearson, like many of the roughly 2,500 people sentenced as teenagers to a mandatory sentence of life without parole, has been on a legal roller coaster ever since the Supreme Court ruled in a pair of decisions that juvenile lifers must be provided with a reasonable opportunity for release. Miller v. Alabama (2012) established that indiscriminately sentencing people under 18 to die in prison is unconstitutional. Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) requires the Miller decision to be applied retroactively. These decisions establish that resentencing must take into account the fact that juveniles are inherently less culpable than adults due to brain-development patterns and their potential to be rehabilitated. In these cases, advocates successfully proved that teenagers sentenced to life in prison weren’t the irredeemable “superpredators” that they were made out to be in the 1980s and ’90s, when most of these individuals were sentenced—and that they didn’t deserve to die in prison. Nineteen states have eliminated mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles entirely. Hundreds of people have been resentenced to lesser terms since Miller, many since Montgomery. But most, like Pearson, have been in a kind of legislative limbo this past year, unsure of their rights. While the Supreme Court decisions have been hailed as victories of criminal-justice reform, some states are dragging their heels when it comes to giving juvenile lifers their day in court. These 2,500 adult men and women remain uncertain whether they’ll die in prison or be offered a second chance.
The Supreme Court decisions grant some flexibility: Montgomery allows states to maintain life sentences for those whose crime illustrates “irreparable corruption” or “permanent incorrigibility.” The phrases are intended to apply to people with a record of heinous violence, but their flexibility is keeping large numbers of juvenile lifers in prison, many of whom receive only cursory hearings. “The problem with Montgomery/Miller is that it stopped short of banning life without parole for children altogether…. Judges and prosecutors [are] interpreting this guidance from the Court in different ways,” said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Your sentence is going to be determined by which state you live in rather than your culpability or role in the crime and individual circumstance.”
The states with the highest juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) populations have some of the most punitive and troubled resentencing processes. Pennsylvania has over 400 juvenile lifers—the highest number in the country—with many of these cases stuck in a legal quagmire and only a handful of people resentenced. In Louisiana, more than 200 men and women are serving out mandatory JLWOP sentences. Judges still regularly impose new life sentences on teenagers in court. Pearson is incarcerated in Michigan, which has approximately 360 JLWOP offenders—the second-highest number in the country—and prosecutors are seeking new life sentences for the vast majority of them. Those for whom prosecutors are not seeking new life-without-parole sentences are subject to legal wrangling for resentencing dates to determine a new prison term with a set number of years.
Today, Pearson is a tough 50-year-old woman with cropped, graying hair. She has changed dramatically since the days when she was an immature, traumatized 17-year-old who, she alleges, accidentally killed the wife of an editorial columnist in Ann Arbor, during a robbery initiated by Pearson’s abusive boyfriend. She has been waiting for more than a year to prove that to a judge.
The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.