By ED WHITE
DETROIT (AP) – A judge signed a sweeping order Tuesday for hundreds of Michigan prisoners serving mandatory no-parole sentences, directing the state to give them an opportunity to apply for release or face the appointment of a special master to oversee the process.
The two-page order was the latest from U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara in a dispute over how to apply the U.S. Supreme Court decision to more than 300 inmates who are serving automatic no-parole sentences for murder committed under age 18.
The Supreme Court last year struck down that type of sentence, saying mandatory no-parole punishments are cruel and unusual for juveniles. Over Michigan’s objections, O’Meara has said the decision must apply retroactively to people in custody.
O’Meara is not guaranteeing a prisoner’s release. Rather, he’s ordering the state to allow inmates to apply for parole after they have served 10 years.
He set a Dec. 31 deadline for Michigan to notify inmates of their parole eligibility and set hearings. He said county judges cannot veto a parole application, a power that’s available in certain cases under state law.
“The proceedings … will be fair, meaningful and realistic,” O’Meara said.
O’Meara wants an update by Jan. 31. He may appoint a special master if he’s not satisfied with how the state is performing.
“It’s a great order,” said Deborah LaBelle, attorney for the inmates. “The court has been very patient. It’s been over a year and the state continues to treat youth as if they’re going to die in prison instead of saying this is cruel and unusual punishment and we have to fix it.”
She noted that some prisoners serving mandatory no-parole sentences had no direct role in a murder but may have been at the scene and connected to the actual killer.
“There are people serving decades of time who never committed a homicide. Enough,” LaBelle said.
A message seeking comment was left with state authorities. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has consistently opposed opening up parole for juvenile lifers. He believes the 2012 Supreme Court decision shouldn’t be applied retroactively.
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)