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USA Today on 5/22/2023 by Jennifer Brookland
Nobody argued that Jose Burgos shouldn’t pay for what he had done. The 16-year-old from southwest Detroit had killed another teen and critically wounded his twin brother in a bungled drug exchange.
But nobody argued over what Burgos’s sentence should be, either. In 1992, the law was clear. For children older than 14, any homicide-related offenses meant trial as an adult and an automatic punishment: life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
The Honorable Clarice Jobes did not have the discretion to consider Burgos’ circumstances — the fact that he’d never shot a gun before the night he tried to pass off a bunch of old rags as a bag of marijuana, or the self-destructive ways he was processing the grief of losing his mother to a bottle full of heart medication.
Jobes couldn’t weigh the fact that for many other matters, the state deemed Burgos too young to make important decisions: about buying cigarettes or alcohol or voting in an election. Her hands were tied.
“I find the limitations of this statute to be totally unfair to everyone concerned,” Jobes said to those gathered in the courtroom. “However, I have to live with them and deal with them. … I think I must sentence him as an adult, and I am going to impose a life sentence. … I have no choice.”
Burgos was led away to a grim future that stretched beyond what he could then fathom. But he had others to light the way — scores of juvenile lifers, mostly Black and brown youths whom Michigan had also decided were categorically irredeemable. Over the next decades, their ranks swelled into the hundreds.
Then, ripples of change.