Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Juvenile lifers can be ordered to pay restitution on resentencing, Mich. Supreme Court rules

Wide exterior shot of state Supreme Court building
Lester Graham
Michigan Public

Convicted defendants given reprieves from life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as teenagers can still be ordered to pay restitution — even if it was not part of their original sentence — to victims under a decision Monday from the Michigan Supreme Court.

The seven-member court issued a unanimous ruling regarding juvenile lifers who were resentenced after U.S. Supreme Court decisions struck down mandatory life without parole for teens.

The case before the Michigan Supreme Court concerned William Neilly, who, at 17 years old, was part of a group that killed another teenager in an attempted armed robbery.

Neilly was convicted in 1993 of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit armed robbery and two counts of felony firearm. As was required at the time, Neilly was automatically sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. Restitution was not part of the sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in 2012 and 2016 striking down automatic life-without-parole sentencing laws in Alabama and Louisiana and states like Michigan with similar statutes.

According to the facts as laid out in the Michigan Supreme Court opinion, the prosecutor agreed to a prison term of 35 to 60 years for Neilly’s resentencing. At the request of the victim’s mother, the court also added a payment of $14,895.78 to reimburse the family for funeral expenses.

Neilly challenged that as an unconstitutional ex post facto punishment added to his prison sentence decades after the crime and his initial sentencing. His attorneys’ legal brief filed in the case noted Michigan’s sentencing laws in the 1990s took into account a defendant’s ability to pay.

“It is manifestly unfair and unjust to subject juvenile lifers to more onerous restitution statutes at their resentencing hearings, many years later, than were in effect at the time of their original crime, conviction, and sentencing,” it said.

But in the opinion written by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, the court held the primary purpose of restitution is not punishment.

“In enacting the restitution statutes, the Legislature intended to create a civil remedy,” she wrote. “Although the imposition of these statutes has some punitive effect, that effect is not sufficient to overcome the demonstrated legislative intent. Accordingly, the imposition of restitution is not punishment.”

Neilly’s publicly-appointed attorney called the decision “disappointing, of course,” and said it will make it harder for former juvenile lifers to succeed after release. Claire Ward of the State Appellate Defender Office said, as a practical matter, even small restitution orders can be big barriers to successful reentry in cases like Neilly’s.               

“He’s about six months out,” she said. "He’s making $12 an hour, which is not enough for him to be able to pay restitution, parole supervision fees, let alone being able to afford his own housing and support himself.”               

Ward said she expects the issue will not go away and a similar question could come before the courts in the future.     

The Kalamazoo County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney did not respond to a request for comment, but veteran prosecutor Timothy Baughman filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. He said the decision ensures victims are not forgotten even years after the crime.  

“It may be in cases like this one where restitution wasn’t ordered previously, it gets ordered now,” he told the Michigan Public Radio Network. “If they’re entitled to restitution, even if it wasn’t ordered originally, it should be ordered at any resentencing.”

Baughman, who is also a Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said he expects the decision will be invoked rarely, but it sets a significant precedent.

“The victims have a right to restitution and that needs to be protected,” he said.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to include a statement from the State Appellate Defender Office.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.