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High Court Ruling Critical in Fairer Sentencing Practices

Statewide coalition welcomes decision as important for Illinois youth

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May 20, 2010 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO --- The Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children, a statewide coalition based at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic, said this week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile life sentences is a critical step toward fairer sentencing practices for youth in Illinois as well as across the country.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court in the case Graham vs. Florida held that under the Eighth Amendment it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole when they do not commit a homicide.

All of the 103 juvenile life-without-the-possibility-of-parole cases in Illinois involve a death or homicide. Although the Graham case did not involve a homicide, the Court's ruling has a potential impact in Illinois. In finding that criminal procedure laws that do not take "defendants' youthfulness into account at all would be flawed," the Court suggested that regardless of the crime, sentencing must account for differences in maturity and development.

"However, Illinois' mandatory sentencing laws make this consideration impossible," said Shobha Mahadev, project director of the Illinois Coalition. "Eighty percent of individuals in Illinois who received life sentences as youths received it as a result of mandatory sentencing laws. Judges in these cases were not allowed to consider the individual's age, maturity, background, family circumstances, education or even their particular role in the crime.

"The Supreme Court's decision highlights the need to re-examine Illinois' sentencing practices regarding youth."   

The Court's recent decision builds upon the reasoning in its previous decision in Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the death penalty for juveniles, finding again that developmental and scientific research support the idea that children differ from adults in fundamental ways.  

"This (Graham) decision is important for Illinois because it reaffirms the principles that juveniles should be treated differently than adults and that, after some time, regardless of the crime, juveniles should be given chances to show that they have changed," said Randolph Stone, clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago’s Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and a steering committee member of the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children.

The statistics in Illinois for youth who were sentenced to life without parole are of particular concern. In Illinois, 82 percent of youth offenders serving life sentences are persons of color. In Cook County, 64 of the 73 youth sentenced to life in prison are African-American and Latino.  

Attorneys for the Children and Family Justice Center, along with the Juvenile Law Center and the National Juvenile Defender Center, submitted an amicus brief to the Court.