Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie
Updated: June 7, 2013 6:11AM
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles should not be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
But the court didn’t address two issues. What about juveniles who already had been sentenced to life without parole? And what about very long sentences, say for 100 years, that are effectively life sentences anyway? As Justice Samuel Alito said in a dissent, “Nothing in the court’s opinion affects the imposition of a sentence to a term of years without the possibility of parole.”
The Illinois Legislature should settle those issues by enacting a law that gives the 103 juveniles now serving life without parole in Illinois a judicial review process offering a chance at release before they die. That review process also should apply to new cases, and judges should be required to take a juvenile’s youth into account when setting a sentence.
Our laws already recognize that people younger than 19 don’t make decisions as well as adults do. We set age limits on voting, joining the military, drinking and smoking. But in Illinois, a child as young as 13 can be sentenced to life in prison without his or her age being taken into consideration.
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) and state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) would allow judges to consider unique circumstances, age, maturity and a defendant’s role in a crime. After 15 years, cases would be reviewed, with a second review 10 to 20 years afterward. Juveniles who commit very serious crimes and don’t show signs of improving still could spend their lives in prison.
Any law that offers parole removes the sense of finality about sentences. And Illinois state’s attorneys, who are negotiating with backers of the legislation, want to ensure the review process is not too lenient.
But those hurdles don’t seem insurmountable. Illinois has long been a leader in juvenile justice; more than a century ago it became the first state to have a separate juvenile court. By enacting this latest reform, the state would continue in this fine tradition.