As Juvenile Justice Reforms Gain Traction, Kids Expected to Die in Prison Consider Redemption
It’s a late August day in Kankakee River State Park. The earth is ripe with the perfume of wild grass, charcoal and summer sweat. As the sun dips over a stand of evergreen trees, lengthening the shadows of a lone cabin at the end of the trail, the sky darkens into a mélange of deep blue tinged with wisps of pink. Deep in the woods, it’s cool and dark and solitary.
When Eric Anderson paints, he remembers the budget family excursions to nature preserves hundreds of miles away from his home in Garfield Ridge, a blue collar neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. Back in the early 1990s, the Andersons’ vacations consisted of packing up the popup trailer and heading out into the wild where Eric and his younger brother Tim entertained themselves by climbing trees, kicking cans and catching snakes. An even younger sister, Anna, was alternately dubbed “princess” and “butthead.”
Sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole at 15, Eric’s world now consists of the Menard Correctional Center’s concrete halls, its strict regimen of bad food, sparse exercise and the occasional lockdown during which he might be confined to his cell for 24 hours at a time. Now 33 years old, Eric is a prison TV repairman, avid reader of everything from electric appliance manuals to criminal justice journals and a self-taught painter of childhood memories. He shaves his head down to the follicle but keeps a mustache and goatee. Despite the deep lines in his forehead and bags under his eyes, he looks younger than he is, like it hasn’t been really been 18 long years since the day he was arrested in connection to the shooting deaths of Chicago 13-year-olds Helena Martin and Carrie Hovel.
Court documents state that on Dec. 14, 1995, the two girls and Bryan Adasiak, a gang member of the Ridgeway Lords, were sitting in a minivan parked in the territory of rival gang the Almighty Popes. Eric and four other members of the Almighty Popes allegedly approached the minivan. There was a loud pop and a flash. Shots were fired, inadvertently killing Martin and Hovel but sparing Adasiak, who later identified Eric in a lineup.
Looking back to that night nearly two decades ago, Tim Anderson recalls that his brother came home late, but he didn’t think anything of it because Eric was always off doing his own thing. The boys camped out in the den, dozing in twin loveseats facing the TV. But at 3 in the morning when a pound came at the door and Tim answered, police told him to get his parents. Subsequently exiled to his room, Tim remembers hearing boots squeaking on the hardwood floor, compounded with urgent, muffled voices. In the morning, Eric was gone and the media had invaded the front lawn.
Tim admits with a chuckle that although he and Eric looked so alike when they were kids that they could have passed for each other, he’s now a bit heavier than his incarcerated brother. But what’s more uncanny is how easily he could have been the one to run afoul of the law instead, Tim said, just because he and Eric were friends with the same group of neighborhood kids, which the police identified as a gang. At the very beginning, those friendships were forged out of the need for peer acknowledgment, respect and even alternative community when parents were strict and schools turned their backs. But eventually “goofy growing up” came to include activities of very real consequence, and one bad decision – misinformed or coerced though it might have been – ensured that Eric and Tim’s paths diverged that critical winter day in 1995.
“What happened to him was a wakeup call for me. Looking back now, maybe we were a little wild, but no more than kids are, and I never thought it was anything that bad,” Tim said, reflecting on the years following Eric’s conviction when he buckled down and improved his grades, enrolled in community college and traveled overseas with the U.S. Marine Corps. “That could have been me, and I went on to do pretty good things. He has more to give.”
As it turns out, Eric might soon get that shot at redemption.
In what was considered a turning point triumph for children’s rights advocates nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole last summer. According to Miller v. Alabama, judges must take into consideration the age, maturity level, potential for rehabilitation and other factors when assigning youth life sentences. In other words, although Illinois state laws currently mandate life imprisonment for 17-year-olds convicted of murdering children less than 12 years of age, or for children convicted of murdering other children younger than 12 during the course of rape or kidnapping, those provisions are actually unconstitutional.
As Illinois attempts to amend laws in accordance with the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision, the big fight in the General Assembly has to do with whether to interpret Miller v. Alabama as retroactive or prospective – if it should also apply to adults convicted as kids or just future cases. So far the Illinois Appellate Court has ruled that Miller v. Alabama is retroactive, giving hope to the 100 or so individuals sentenced as children to life imprisonment, but other powers within the state are holding out on an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office for one promotes a strictly prospective interpretation of Miller v. Alabama.
Two legislative amendment options have gained traction in the General Assembly: one proposed by the State’s Attorney’s Office and the other by Human Rights Watch, an NGO that traditionally focuses its advocacy efforts on national and international issues. Their respective bills differ in many ways, but key inconsistencies include the Human Rights Watch’s intent for retroactive application as well as sentence review opportunities for inmates after they serve a certain number of years in prison. The State’s Attorney’s Bill makes no mention of either and does not establish procedures for courts to use when determining sentences. However, it does commute mandatory life without parole sentencing of juveniles to “60 to 100 years.”
Given that child recipients of life sentences tend to be about 15 or 16 at the time of conviction, 60 to 100 years is essentially rewording of the status quo, children’s rights advocates argue. Repeated attempts to seek comment from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office were unsuccessful.
Shobha Mahadev, coordinator of the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Children, said she cannot speculate how the State’s Attorney could benefit from the continued incarceration of adults who had committed felony blunders as compulsive children but have since grown into very different people, but in her mind the bill simply replaces one unconstitutional statutory scheme with another.
“This is not what the Supreme Court is talking about, not in spirit, not even in letter. It’s nearly impossible to tell, when someone is 15, whether or not they’re that rare person who cannot be redeemed,” Mahadev argues. “I guess as a society, we’ve moved toward these highly punitive sentences. When something terrible has happened, when a child commits a horrible offense, the answer that society has given is the worst possible sentence imaginable. But finality and punishment and retribution – especially when we’re talking about kids, these are not the only considerations. We need to be talking about rehabilitation and the power of hope in these situations, the power to earn a chance.”
The Human Rights Watch reform bill is the first piece of legislation that the organization has introduced in Illinois. It is extremely rare for Human Rights Watch to launch campaigns at the state level, but the issue of juvenile life without parole sentencing is one that can be best influenced by governors and state legislators. Given that Human Rights Watch is a brand new voice in the Illinois legislature however, it has significantly less political clout than the State’s Attorney. Nevertheless, a broader, international analysis of trends in juvenile justice would reveal that the United States and Somalia are alone in applying this sentence.
The General Assembly may move on the two bills this legislative session or it may not. The outcome may be adoption of one or neither, or some amended version of either. If the Human Rights Watch’s bill is adopted, it would be a strong step in the right direction, Mahadev says. But if the State’s Attorney’s bill is adopted, she promises a litigation and policy reform fight that might still turn out to be “a good challenge.”
Currently reeling from a year of incredible crime rates – culminating in more than 500 homicides and a renewed title of “Murder Capital of the United States – Chicago has long been a breeding ground for child on child street violence. Headlines heralding weekend turf wars are a staple of the city, but meaningful analysis of the roots of crime are less common. Crime stats can be deceptive if they’re not broken down geographically and demographically, though offender recidivism rates can be very telling of the effectiveness of the local criminal justice system.
Emmanuel Andre, a defense attorney and co-director of hip hop center Circles and Ciphers, is a proponent of seeking restorative justice alternatives to punitive sentencing of youth. Restorative justice, which emphasizes rehabilitation and mediation, encourages offenders to repair the harm they cause to individuals and communities. In addition to trying to provide a community alternative to gang participation, Andre works to support families of youth serving life without parole – a service that is practically nonexistent within the criminal justice system.
“The result of (juvenile life without parole sentencing) is that victims still hurt, and the family members of the offender too are still in a lot of pain. It’s one thing to punish the individual, but when you punish the whole family, where does that get us?” Andre notes that in recent years, organizations for offenders’ families have sprung up to address the needs of those whose loved ones are incarcerated. For instance, when an act of extreme violence is heard in court, victims’ families are given access to therapeutic services and assigned grief counselors, but offenders’ families are left to grapple with the shame and stigma of their situation alone.
On Saturday, the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a Back of the Yards restorative justice program that eases kids off the streets with food, shelter and community, held a fundraising auction in Rogers Park. Julie Anderson, Eric’s mom and founder of Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children enters voice-first, hugs second. She’s wearing a pink leopard print blouse, touting a bright red handbag and flanked by four chattering girlfriends. She points her friends to a framed watercolor piece depicting an idyllic cabin in the woods, and then falls back to let them admire it.
Less than a week prior to the benefit, Julie and the rest of her family rose just before dawn to drive 350 miles south of Chicago to visit Eric. They do this five times a month, every month of the year. When his family visits, Eric will want to talk about the law, about the family and his ambitions to work in restorative justice – either mentoring teens to avoid gangs or advocating prison reform. They have two hours together to summarize their separate lives – Tim’s wedding this summer, for which Eric should have served as best man, and Anna’s 21st birthday coming up later this month.
“I know the victim’s families have lost their children, and I lost mine. There’s always this emptiness,” Julie had said prior to the benefit, recalling the remorse she felt when her daughter Anna confided to her one day that she felt she needed to live two lives – one for Eric and the other for herself. “We talked about how what happened to the girls was horrific, but a life sentence for someone else to serve is not enough to honor their death. You kind of have to right a wrong there somehow.”
The profits from Eric’s painting will pay for transportation cards for the kids of Precious Blood Ministry so they don’t have to walk through neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs. In return for a little more than $200, a snapshot memory of a favorite childhood place, of family union and the freedom of camping under the stars allows a man whom society rejected as a child to reach beyond the confines of his prison cell.