Fixing Illinois' Unconstitutional Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentencing for Juveniles

It's May now, and the Illinois legislature has already taken up measures to try to fix the concealed carry law. The fix on juvenile life sentences? Still waiting.
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Prisoner hands
Prisoner hands

Last year, federal courts ruled two of Illinois' laws unconstitutional. The Illinois legislature is acting on one, involving gun rights; it is time for lawmakers to act on the other, which provides that juveniles who commit murder can, as a mandatory sentence, be locked up for life without any possibility of parole.

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court in a case called Miller v. Alabama struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. Illinois has such a law on the books and scores of inmates serving that sentence.

Six months later, a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that Illinois' ban on carrying concealed weapons violated the U.S. Constitution. It ordered the Illinois General Assembly to change the law by June 2013.

It's May now, and the Illinois legislature has already taken up measures to try to fix the concealed carry law. The fix on juvenile life sentences? Still waiting.

This matters to me because in 1990, three of my family members were murdered by a juvenile in Winnetka: my sister Nancy, her husband Richard and their unborn baby. Nancy was three months pregnant with her first child when an intruder shot them to death with a stolen handgun. Before Nancy died, she wrote a message in her own blood beside her husband: a heart shape and the letter "u." Love you. It was an act of strength and courage.

The intruder was one month short of his 17th birthday. He is serving three life without parole sentences for the killings.

I believed in that sentence when he got it. I don't anymore.

The sentence is merciless. It says to people whom we have barely allowed to learn to drive: no matter how sorry you are for your crime, how rehabilitated you are, how amply you demonstrate your ability to safely rejoin society, we will never let you out. We will never even allow you to have a single parole hearing in which you can make the case for your release.

The sentence, when it is mandatory, excludes the voices of victims' families, many of whom were not permitted to make victim impact statements or express their wishes when their loved ones' killers were sentenced. Murder victims' family members are not a monolith: Many support life sentences for juveniles, but others do not. None has moral superiority over the others; all have suffered grievously. No one speaks for all.

The sentence is wasteful, of human lives and scarce public resources. It says to taxpayers, no matter how harmless an individual may be rendered by age 60, 70, 80, he still must be housed in prison till he dies, even if he entered that prison as a teenager.

Perhaps most importantly, though, mandatory juvenile life sentences violate the document which enshrines our most precious rights: the Constitution. That matters to me because I am a lawyer, the daughter and granddaughter and niece of lawyers. I practice law. I teach it, as an adjunct professor at Northwestern.

Our government is one of separation of powers. The job of courts is to declare what is constitutional. The job of the legislature is to write constitutional laws.

Lawmakers can't wait around for courts to fix unconstitutional laws; that violates our deepest principles of federalism. On mandatory juvenile life without parole in Illinois, our legislature must change the law for people who might be subjected to the sentence in the future, but it should also change the law for people who have been subjected to it in the past.

I understand the role of fear in politics. Some lawmakers know the responsible thing to do but shrink from doing it, out of fear. If I vote for this, the argument goes, someone will run against me in the next election and send out a mailer claiming I voted to let murderers out of prison (though this would be untrue; even the most progressive reform proposal made in the General Assembly this session leaves intact the possibility that juveniles could be turned down for release and still serve life sentences).

I've learned from my sister Nancy that life is short, that we cannot waste a minute on something as small as fear. Her bravery at the last teaches me to try to live as courageously as she did.

My hope is that lawmakers will summon that same courage: on juvenile life sentences, take up a reform bill, debate it and enact it now.

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