Illinois High Court Opens Door to New Sentences for Juvenile Lifers

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Adolfo Davis, who was 16 when sentenced to mandatory life without parole for murder, will be eligible for new sentencing in a ruling that cracks open the door for scores of other inmates convicted while young to potentially live outside of prison as free.

The court’s opinion, issued Thursday morning, also applies retroactively to former cases of inmates sentenced as minors to life with the possibility of parole, even in homicide cases. Retroactivity, which has been adopted by such states as Texas, was something the U.S. Supreme Court left unclear in its 2012 ruling.

Jobi Cates, director of the Human Rights Watch Chicago office, said in a statement: “Youth who commit crimes should be held to account – but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation…If something is wrong on Tuesday, it was also wrong on Monday. Applying the Miller decision retroactively will help some young offenders find a path to becoming productive members of society.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in making it’s 2012 decision, agreed with arguments that minors, despite the heinous nature of a crime, could not be held to the same standard and consequences as adults, for the reason that they had not matured emotionally or mentally to the capacity of adult offenders. The court had previously ruled against the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole for crimes other than homicide

The Illinois ruling in a case in which Davis, now 37, was accused of being an accomplice and not the actual shooter, means that about 100 current inmates serving JLWOP could get new hearings and new sentences. But life could still be handed down – just not as a mandatory sentence – if the judge in a case feels it is appropriate.

The fierce battle over how to apply Miller in Illinois – which never adopted a law to apply it and has therefore been out of compliance for almost two years – started even before the Miller ruling. Advocates for both victims of the crimes and minors who committed them – or were accomplices found guilty – fought over who deserved the greatest weight.

Those fighting the Davis ruling argued the victims’ families and loved ones would have endure and relive details of the crimes yet again in new hearings. Juvenile advocates argued for the young perpetrators whose age, combined with the sentence, amounted to what the U.S. Supreme Court said was a violation of the 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment.

Longtime JLWOP reform advocate Jeanne Bishop, whose sister Nancy was murdered in 1990 along with her husband and unborn baby, said it is essential that victims’ rights are protected through the impending re-sentencing hearings that will resurrect old cases. When juvenile killers were given mandatory minimum sentences of life without parole back in the years when it was legal, victims’ families did not have the opportunity to submit impact statements or even to hear the background of their loved ones’ murderers.

One bill sitting in the Illinois legislature would provide for the preparation of victims’ families going into re-sentencing.

“The legislature needs to act to pass this reform bill that makes sure that as these defendants are being re-sentenced, there are protections built in for victims’ families. There needs to be a delay before a re-sentencing can occur so families have time to prepare,” Bishop said. “Right now, without that legislation in place, these cases are just going to go forward whenever these defendants file petitions to be re-sentenced.”

Bishop added that although she had supported life without parole for juveniles after her sister’s murder, she eventually came to advocate against it. She attributes that change of heart to her Christian faith, which impressed upon her every individual’s capacity for redemption – including her sister’s killer, whom she met during a prison visit.

HRW also noted in the statement that, “Sentencing youths under 18 to life with no chance of release is a violation of international law. No other country in the world imposes life without parole on people who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.”

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