When a juvenile commits a felony crime such as murder, do they deserve to spend the rest of their life in prison? A recent Illinois Supreme Court decision says “no.”
The U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit murder are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that discretionary sentences of life without parole and de facto life sentences are also prohibited. The question remained, however, as to what length of sentence should be deemed an “in fact” life sentence. This question was recently addressed by the Illinois Supreme Court in the 2019 case of People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327.
Illinois Law Allows for Leniency in Juvenile Sentencing
Illinois juvenile law has four stated purposes: To protect citizens from juvenile crime, to hold juvenile offenders accountable for their acts, to provide juvenile with due process of law, and to help juvenile offenders develop life skills that enable them to mature into productive members of society. In this context, a sentence that would keep a juvenile in prison for the rest of their expected life does not make sense.
In 2016, the Illinois legislature enacted additional guidelines to govern the sentencing of juvenile offenders, defined as those under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. This law, 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105, requires judges to consider all of these mitigating factors when sentencing juveniles:
- The person’s potential for rehabilitation or evidence of rehabilitation..
- The person’s prior juvenile or criminal history.
- The person’s role in the offense, including the level of planning they did.
- The person’s age, impetuosity, and level of maturity at the time of the offense, including the ability to consider risks and consequences of behavior, and the presence of any cognitive or developmental disability.
- The person’s ability to meaningfully participate in their defense.
- The person’s history of parental neglect, physical abuse, or other childhood trauma.
- The person’s family, home environment, and educational and social background.
- The extent to which the person was affected by peer pressure, familial pressure, or negative influences.
- Any other facts the court finds relevant and reliable.
How Long of a Prison Sentence Is too Long for a Juvenile?
The juvenile sentencing law of 2016 prescribed a minimum sentence of 40 years in prison for a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder. In the 2019 case of People v. Buffer, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that 40 years should be the state’s maximum acceptable prison sentence for a juvenile because it allows for release prior to the end of their expected lifespan. For example, a 17-year-old who was sentenced at age 20 would only be 60 years old upon their release.
A Will County Juvenile Defense Attorney
If you have a family member under age 18 who needs a defense attorney, call an experienced Joliet juvenile defense lawyer. Attorney Jack L. Zaremba has the criminal defense experience in the Will County courts that you need. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation.