This County In Michigan Has the Most Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences in the US

Wayne County, Michigan is an "extreme outlier" in sentencing juveniles to life without parole, and the local prosecutor intends to keep it that way.

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Detroit Free Press/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Wayne County, Michigan leads the country in sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, according to a report released Thursday by the Fair Punishment Project.

The report found there are roughly 150 people serving life without parole in Wayne County who were sentenced as juveniles. That number makes the county "an extreme outlier," the report says, in the use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, which have declined across the country in recent years.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled that its 2012 decision, which found juvenile life without parole unconstitutional except in rare cases, applied retroactively. Under that precedent, all states must revisit their existing JLWOP cases, either resentencing them or making them eligible for parole.

Last Friday Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced that "the public should rest assured that we will aggressively pursue life without possibility of parole" in 60 out of the 145 JLWOP cases it reviewed.

"Although we had a short amount of time under the statute, we gave a considered and thoughtful review," Worthy said in a press statement. "We combed trial transcripts, prison records, and numerous other documents. We sought input from victims' families, when they could be located during this short window of time. Without commenting on my personal opinion, we have fulfilled our obligation to protect the public and to follow the spirit and intent of the Supreme Court decisions."

Philadelphia was previously held the most juvenile lifers, but the Philadelphia D.A. ended the practice in June and announced it would be resentencing all of the 300 inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. According the Fair Punishment Project report, a majority of states in the U.S. have either ended the practice entirely or have less than five individuals serving the sentence.

"There is growing national consensus that life without parole is an inappropriate sentence for kids," Rob Smith of the Fair Punishment Project said in a statement. "D.A. Worthy's decision to again seek life without parole for one out of three individuals who were convicted as juveniles is completely out of line with the Supreme Court's ruling, mounting scientific research, the practices of prosecutors across the country, and years of experience that have shown us that youth are capable of change and deserve an opportunity to earn their release."

The report also noted the disparity in sentencing—both in terms of volume and race—between Wayne County and the rest of Michigan.

"While Wayne County has just 18 percent of the statewide population, it has at least 40 percent of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan," the report states. "Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39 percent of Wayne County's population, but more than 90 percent of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are black."

One person sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile in Michigan was Richard Wershe Jr., a local Detroit legend more infamously known as "White Boy Rick." Wershe was sentenced to life without parole in 1988 at age 17 for possession with intent to deliver 17 pounds of cocaine under mandatory minimum guidelines. I wrote about Wershe's case in 2014.

Although the drug law he was sentenced under has been reformed, and Wershe has since been resentenced to life with the possibility of parole, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has repeatedly argued against his release, despite testimony in his favor from former FBI and DEA agents.

A Wayne County trial court granted Wershe another resentencing hearing last year in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, but Worthy's office appealed. An appellate court ruled against Wershe and reversed the lower court's decision. Wershe is now 46 years old. His next chance at parole is in 2017.

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  1. Perfect example of a community that sacrifices its own children upon the altar of its career ambitions. “On the mount of the Government, it will be provided.”

  2. Through 12:45, I count 4 post-mortem articles on the DNC convention, and one of them is an anti-Trump article.

    The Reason writers are really going to have to get going to match the wall of post-mortem RNC articles.

    1. Have you counted how many commenters consider anything less than absolute parity in coverage to be a de facto endorsement of one candidate over the other?

        1. In a row?

      1. No, but I do think the gross disparity in amount of coverage, and, more arguably, the tone of coverage, has been revealing.

  3. Friday nutpunch in the Balko tradition.

    1. A rather sh1t piece of race baiting.

      1. Correction. I was replying to the wrong article. It’s a good piece by CJ. I’m glad he mentioned Rick Wershe’s case.

  4. Has anyone asked the juveniles what they would like? They might not want to be released if it means being set loose in Detroit, any more than I’m sure the Philadelphia lifers may have rathered stay behind bars than face the prospect of having to go back into that wretched shithole of a city.

  5. I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.

    1. No one could steer me right, but Mama tried.

  6. Any drug offenders should be released. But people who slowly torture their victims to death should get life without parole, even if they are 16 or 17 years old. Anything less is an insult to the victims, and an incentive for criminals to commit murder in aggravated and tortuous fashion. Proportionality requires life without parole for the worst murders.

    This article doesn’t seem to understand Wayne County crime statistics. At least 90 percent of murders with aggravating circumstances in Wayne County are black, so this statistic is not surprising, rather than being incredible:
    “Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39 percent of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90 percent of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are black.” As Heather Mac Donald has noted, the homicide rate among black teenagers is ten times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.

    1. But people who slowly torture their victims to death should get life without parole, even if they are 16 or 17 years old. Anything less is an insult to the victims, and an incentive for criminals to commit murder in aggravated and tortuous fashion.

      That’s probably a fair account of the Wayne County JLWOP prison population.

      1. Not to mention most jailers.

    2. Rick Wershe is 28 years into a life sentence for a single nonviolent drug offense. He should have been released long ago!

      “Is a teenage FBI informant behind bars because of what he knows? Drug dealer imprisoned in 1988 aged just 17 is STILL in jail after he exposed crooked police officers and the Mayor of Detroit’s brother-in-law
      Richard Wershe Jr has been in prison since 1988 for a non-violent crime
      Was sentenced to life without parole at just 17 for possessing cocaine
      He was convicted under a draconian law that has since been repealed
      Wershe has been eligible for parole since 2002, but he is still locked up
      Some suggest the targets he took down as an informant may have influenced the parole board’s decision to keep him behind bars” – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new…..r-law.html

      More info: https://www.facebook.com/FreeRickWersheJr

  7. LAW AND ORDER!

  8. Clearly it’s racism: just look at the prosecutor and the fact that Detroit has been governed by Republicans for generations.

  9. “I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn’t want to do it. I felt I owed it to them.”

    1. Great, now I’m jonzing for a Fresca….

  10. I don’t understand the thought process behind asking victims’ families what they think. That’s really not relevant given that (like it or not) crimes are committed against the state. And, really, what do you think a family will say when asked whether the killer of their loved one is about to be set free. (But I suppose that’s a feature, and not a bug of the whole thing.)

    1. Yes, the victims (and by extension, their families) are deprived of nothing…other than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  11. Former resident of Wayne County/Detroit. I emigrated precisely because there seemed to be an over abundance of juveniles (and adults) who deserved life without parole. Just say’in.

  12. If 17 year olds are committing murder then I don’t have a problem with LWOP.

    Cocaine possession doesn’t seem to merit JLWOP but j can’t fathom the circumstances under which a kid has 17 lbs of coke.

    1. Rick was recruited as an undercover informant at 14 years old. That led him deep into that mess. It’s also the reason why he’s still locked up.

      “Richard John Wershe Jr. is a political prisoner in America. The political component of his ordeal is local, it’s harsh and it’s vindictive.

      Wershe, who grew up in Detroit, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was 17. The law was eventually changed to allow parole but that hasn’t made a difference for Wershe. He is Michigan’s last remaining juvenile non-violent drug offender, still behind bars after 27 years. Wershe, who has been described by a prison official as a near-model prisoner, was never charged with any drug-related violence, he was never charged with ordering any drug violence, he never operated crack houses, he was never charged with conspiracy because he never had a gang, he was never named as an unindicted co-conspirator in any narcotics case and he was never called as a witness in any drug trials. Yet, he’s been labeled a drug lord and kingpin.” – http://www.thedailybeast.com/a…..-cops.html

  13. Tell us the crimes so that we can see if the sentences are with or without merit.

  14. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy

    She who brought down Kwame Kilpatrick. Only prosecutor I can name to whom I would at least give the benefit of the doubt.

    1. She also is the one that took a dive on prosecuting the cop who murdered a sleeping 7 year old girl on television.

      1. Why do you have to ruin everything?

    2. She’s a crooked and corrupt pig who needs to be fired! If anything she’s racist against “whites”.

  15. ANOTHER post about hillbillies?

  16. You know what else is disproportionate in Wayne County? The murder rate in the City of Detroit.

    Here’s Detroit and every city within 5% of its population in 2014, and their (non-negligent) homicide rate that year.

    Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan. Population 684,694. 43.5 per 100,000.

    Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee. Population 654,922. 21.4 per 100,000.

    Washington, District of Columbia. Population 658,893. 15.9 per 100,000.

    Louisville, Kentucky. Population 677,710. 8.3 per 100,000.

    Boston, Massachusetts. Population 654,413. 8.1 per 100,000.

    Denver, Denver County, Colorado. Population 665,353. 4.7 per 100,000.

    Seattle, King County, Washington. Population 663,410. 3.9 per 100,000.

    El Paso, El Paso County, Texas. Population 680,273. 3.1 per 100,000.

    1. You’re harshing the criminal justice reform buzz, man.

  17. Richard Wershe Jr. is 28 years into a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense which occurred when he was a minor (17 years old). Rick was arrested for doing what a drug task force had previously encouraged and paid him to do starting when he was just 14 years old. Why should Rick have to spend another day behind bars for the mistakes he made as a kid??

  18. Information, documents, links, etc related to Rick Wershe and his case:
    https://www.facebook.com/FreeRickWersheJr/

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/a…..-cops.html

  19. The reason why most are “black” is because they commit most of the murders in Michigan. Most happen in Detroit which only makes up less than 10% of the population. The leading cause of death for young “black” males is murder from their own peers. The segment of society which commits the most murders is young “black” males who only make up about 5% of the population. We need to focus more on the problems (poverty, lack of education, denial, etc) which has allowed this to continue for decades.

  20. “Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Rick Wershe’s nemesis who has fought tenaciously to keep him in prison until he dies, has been singled out among U.S. prosecutors in a new report by the Harvard Law School for being an ‘Extreme Outlier’ on sentencing juveniles to prison for life. An outlier is someone who differs from everyone else in his or her group. Worthy’s latest disgraceful distinction is the result of cases decided long after Wershe was sent to prison, but it tells us something about the woman who decides who goes to prison in Wayne County, Michigan, and the woman who has done all she can to prevent Wershe from getting a parole.” – http://www.thedimedroppers.com…..t-kym.html

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