Does Michigan's "life without parole" sentence for felony murders need adjustments?

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution released a new report evaluating the impact of felony murder rule on sentencing.

People who were present during the crime, but not the person behind the trigger, could be sentenced to life without parole. According to the report, one-quarter of people serving life without parole in Michigan were convicted of felony murder.

Jamie Meade, a man convicted under this rule, says he knows what he did was wrong.

"I realize I did play a part in a crime and that I deserve to do time because of the part that I played because I could've prevented any of this at any time by even just going to him," Meade said.

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In 1993, at 19-years-old, Meade and a friend were under the influence of marijuana and alcohol. They decided to rob an acquaintance, a gun went off, and a man was killed, said Meade.

FOX 2: "At any point did you handle the weapon?"

Jamie Meade: "Um, no."

FOX 2: "So, when the gun discharged, who was holding the weapon?"

Jamie Meade: "My codefendant."

Regardless, Meade got life without parole after being convicted of aiding and abetting a felony murder.

Christian Wiesenberg, Meade's attorney, says the man who was holding the weapon during the crime is already out of prison. That man was tried first and convicted on a lesser charge.

Even the judge who sentenced Meade said in a latter to the parole board that if she were sentencing today, had discretion, and was not bound by the mandatory sentence, she would probably have sentenced Meade to no more than his codefendant.

FOX 2: "Did you feel as though in some ways that you were the scapegoat for the prosecutor because they didn't get the triggerman?"

Jamie Meade: "Oh, absolutely. And for them to not offer a plea knowing that the perpetrator would receive a certain amount of time, after all these years it strikes a very odd feeling that he was a scapegoat, you know, at least we'll get someone."

"In Michigan, at least, life means life. It does not seem like there is as much faith in rehabilitation and allowing second chances," Wiesenberg said.

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A report from The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution illustrates that Michigan is only one of a handful of states that mandates life without parole for all adult felony murder convictions.

FOX 2: "The way the laws are written in Michigan would say with regard to sentencing guidelines, would you say it's broken, fair, needs adjustments, how would you characterize it?

Wendi Johnson: "I would say it definitely needs adjustments."

"My understanding of it is that it is written in such a broad way that it gives prosecutors great discretion in how they can apply it and so in many ways they are able to actually sort of weaponize it and use it to essentially extract plea deals that still involve these very long protracted sentences," said Johnson, an Oakland University Criminal Justice professor. "One of the other things that we do know is that this is disproportionately applied by race."

The report confirms that felony murder laws widen the net of extreme sentencing and have particularly adverse impacts on people of color, women and young people.

"We have what's called the age crime curve which means that while most youth engage in some form of delinquency, most of them will not age out of it," Johnson said.

There is a delicate balancing act between keeping people safe and keeping someone in prison for the appropriate amount of time.

Wendi Johnson: "Obviously, we want to think about the victims. Often there's this concern about letting a potential violent offender, someone who's likely to re-offend, letting them go. And that's understandable… and so a lot of times there is this tendency to want to air on the side of caution, but on the flip side of that is that then you're potentially continuing to incarcerate people who really don't pose any significant threat to public safety."

FOX 2: "Which consideration is more compelling?"

Wendi Johnson: "Correct."

FOX 2: "If you were released back into the community, what assurances can you give people that their children would be safe… that you are a changed person?"

Jamie Meade: "I can assure through my actions… I mean… I can say that I will never commit a crime again and be 100% assured of that. My first steps would be to continue my Masters in Divinity with the Chicago Theological Seminary and my next step would be to apply for Wayne State Law or Detroit Mercy Law and go into law school because I have harmed society. I have hurt so many people by my action and I want to make up for that and I want to give back and become a law-abiding citizen and pay taxes and try my hardest to help as many people not make that same decision in life that leads to prison."

While incarcerated, Meade has earned a Bachelor of Arts and is pursuing an MBA as well as a Master of Divinity. Should he complete the degree, he will be the first incarcerated person to be registered by the United Church of Christ Michigan Covenant Association to become an ordained minister.

Meade's attorney says there's consideration of raising the age for life sentences before the Michigan Supreme Court.

Several advocacy groups are working to introduce a second chance re-sentencing bill. Another group is working to have a referendum on good time credits for prisoners.