Cruel, Unusual, and a Matter of Law in Illinois

A year after the Supreme Court ruled mandatory juvenile life sentencing without parole unconstitutional, the Midwestern state still hasn't brought its laws into compliance.
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Members of the Illinois House of Representatives on May 30, 2013 (Seth Perlman/AP)

The one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision to outlaw juvenile mandatory life sentencing without parole is coming up fast, yet Illinois is no closer to being in compliance.

Late Friday, Illinois lawmakers finished the year's legislative session and walked out of the Capitol with the media decrying their failure to act on pension reform as well as gay marriage.

But with less notice in the media−and despite heated lobbying−the state also failed to craft a bill to put Illinois in compliance with Miller v. Alabama, last June's decision recognizing the mental and emotional differences between juvenile and adult offenders and ruling juvenile mandatory life without parole, even in the case of homicide, to be unconstitutional.

Having failed to act, the state−bogged down with a pension mess and massive debt−is now open to, potentially, reams of lawsuits challenging any future juvenile mandatory life sentencing and legal action demanding retroactivity for all past juvenile sentences. As it is, more than 100 Illinois inmates, sentenced as juveniles, are facing life without parole. Without passing retroactive legislation these youth are forced to live the rest of their lives in prison.

"The practical problem right now is that the statue remaining is unconstitutional, and now judges [in Illinois] need to work around that without legislation," said Shobha Mahadev, assistant professor of law at Northwestern University. "Looking back I cannot think of any case where a state didn't adhere to the Supreme Court's ruling−maybe in Brown v. Board of Education."

But this ruling, some say, appears to be different. "I'm not sure any state has fully implemented Miller," said Antonio Ginatta, the U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "If you held to three benchmarks: 1) elimination of all mandatory life without parole sentences for youth; 2) a consideration of all the youth factors delineated in Miller at sentencing; 3) meaningful opportunities to review youth sentences taking into account the Miller factors and rehabilitation...it's up for debate as to how many states comply with the decision," he said.

Miller calls not just to eliminate mandatory juvenile life without parole (or JLWOP), but also for retroactive action and consideration of mitigating factors in youth sentencing, activists say. The problem, according to Mahadev, is that while Miller recognized juveniles' developmental limitations, it only stated what states can't do and did not draw a road map on how, precisely, laws should be crafted to comply with the decision.

Throughout this past legislative session, activist groups have been lobbying with legislators in Springfield both for and against mandatory reviews, retroactivity and the rights of victims' families. Various bills in Illinois have been drafted to address this issue, but all have failed to receive the necessary traction. The current bill sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) and state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) has been stuck in the negotiating process this past year. But, the Illinois Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue of retroactivity in the near future.

Presented by

Paige Sutherland, Bryan Lowry, & Ananth Baliga

Paige Sutherland, Bryan Lowry, and Ananth Baliga are writers living in Chicago.

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