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Illinois Supreme Court Gets it Right on Juvenile Life Sentences: Now, the Legislature Ought to Act

03/20/2014 01:10 pm 13:10:11 | Updated May 20, 2014

The Illinois Supreme Court got it right today when it ruled that all the inmates currently serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles are eligible for new sentences, including sentences of less than natural life. That decision is good for the juveniles, good for society and, ultimately, good for families of victims of the crimes which led to those sentences (I am a member of one of those families: A juvenile murdered three of my family members in Winnetka in 1990, and is doing life without parole in Pontiac prison).

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory juvenile life without parole ("jlwop") sentences in a case called Miller v. Alabama, Illinois has faced a two-part dilemma: What to do with the laws we have on our books permitting people less than the age of 18 to be sentenced to mandatory jlwop, and what to do with the people serving that sentence.

Let's be clear what "mandatory" means: It means that once a young person is convicted of a certain crime, such as killing more than one person in a single incident, he automatically receives jlwop. There are no hearings in which a judge can learn about the offender: How he grew up, what his psychological state is, his educational background, the presence of abuse or other trauma and so on. Nor can the court consider any input from the victim's family into what the offender's sentence should be. "Mandatory" means this: Once you are convicted of this crime, this is the sentence which must be given, regardless of the individual circumstances of the case or characteristics of the defendant.

The Miller case changed all that. It said courts must consider a host of factors, including the age and maturity of the defendant, before courts can impose a jlwop sentence. The Court in Miller, though, was silent on whether that requirement was retroactive -- that is, whether it applied to the approximately 100 juveniles already serving jlwop in Illinois.

Back to that two-part dilemma: Illinoisans know what we have to do going forward: We have to change our laws so that juveniles in the future can no longer receive jlwop as a mandatory sentence. Courts can still impose jlwop, but only after a careful consideration of the characteristics set forth in the Miller case, including the youth of the offender.

What about those 100 or so juvenile lifers in Illinois? Did the new rule apply to them, too? That's the question the Illinois Supreme Court answered, with a resounding, "Yes." In doing so, it joined the majority of States which have considered this issue, including States as conservative as Texas and Mississippi.

That decision is good for the juvenile offenders, because it gives them an opportunity to demonstrate that they are -- because of rehabilitation, remorse and a host of other factors -- deserving of a sentence less than life.

The decision is good for society, because it frees us from bearing the burden of warehousing forever people who may have changed profoundly for the better and shown their worthiness to be considered for release. It unleashes the human potential of many people who entered prison young and have the capacity to contribute to society if let out.

The decision can be good, too, for the families of the victims of the crimes for which these juveniles were sentenced. It will allow many victims' family members to learn, for the first time, possibly, about the person who took their loved ones' lives -- who he was at the time of the crime, and who he is now. It will make it possible for those same family members to have something they never had before: Some input into what the offender's sentence should be. It will help end the protracted cycle of further litigation. And it keeps open the possibility that some offenders will not be released; they can still be sentenced to life without parole as a discretionary sentence. The decision is not a "get out of jail free" card.

The Illinois Supreme Court has acted, and wisely. It is now time for the Illinois legislators to act, to pass the reform law pending in the General Assembly to bring our laws into compliance with the Miller decision. That, too, is the right thing to do.