Julie Anderson cried when she heard the United States Supreme Court’s decision in last year’s Miller v. Alabama case.
She hoped the June 25, 2012 decision, with which Illinois has yet to fully fall in line, meant that her now-33-year-old son serving a life sentence for a slaying when he was 15, might get the chance to have his case re-examined. But she waits.
In the Miller case, the Court reaffirmed that juveniles are different from adults when it comes to the criminal justice system, something that it has now ruled in at least three watershed cases over the last 10 years.
The issue at hand in Miller was whether mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted even of homicide violated the Eighth Amendment.
The Court had already ruled in 2010’s Graham v. Florida juveniles could not be sentenced to LWOP for non-homicide offenses.
The Miller ruling took things one step further, stating that mandatory life-without-prison sentences, which are triggered by sentencing schemes that equate certain crimes with certain punishments without considering mitigating circumstances, violated the Eighth Amendment:
“By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate … the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Now, more than a year later, the state of Illinois is still fundamentally out of compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling, advocates say. The Illinois Code of Corrections still enforces mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain crimes, and no new legislation has been passed in the state regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Jobi Cates, the director of Chicago’s chapter of Human Rights Watch, said that there needs to be more judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing juveniles, and that any new legislation passed in the state needs to include provisions to ensure that juveniles sentenced have a “meaningful opportunity for release.”
“We’ve been working with the Coalition [for the Fair Sentencing of Youth] and the public defender’s office, who would like to see Miller and Graham applied more broadly,” Cates said, “or applied at all.”
House Bill 1348, which was proposed in February 2013, seeks to address the issue by eliminating the mandatory sentence for persons convicted under the age of 18. The bill was read before the House twice, but then got stuck in the Rules Committee in late April.
Cates said she was pleased when the Miller decision was announced, but that she didn’t expect to see a “wholesale change” happen immediately.
“There are always two, three, four sides to every issue,” she said. “Rolling back these extreme sentencing regimes has never been easy.”
One of the main sticking points that has made it difficult to implement the Miller ruling is determining whether the decision should apply retroactively, to cases where people currently serving time were statutorily sentenced to life-without-parole as juveniles. This retroactivity is what the Illinois Supreme Court could clear up when it hears argument in November or January.
As it is, the U.S. high court was vague on this point, leaving this decision mostly up to the states’ individual interpretations.
Jody Kent Lavy, the director and national coordinator for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said that states have applied the Miller ruling in a number of ways.
“There’s definitely been a whole variety of approaches to complying,” Kent Lavy said, “some more comprehensive and forward-looking than others.”
California – where about 6,500 people were serving statutorily imposed life-without-parole sentences given to them as juveniles – passed a bill in September that allows for those people to submit petitions for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years.
In the Illinois appellate court case People v. Williams, the presiding judges ruled that Miller should be applied retroactively. There were approximately 105 people serving life who had been sentenced as juveniles.
“This is not such a great number of cases for us to conclude that it is an unreasonable burden for the State and the courts to reopen their cases for resentencing,” the court’s decision read.
In another appellate court case, People v. Davis, the same court affirmed this ruling, but the state’s attorney’s office appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which could hear arguments on the case in either its November or January session.
Shobha Mahadev, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University School of Law’s Children and Family Justice Center, said the state Supreme Court – whose November docket hasn’t been released yet – is expected to hear oral arguments in either November or January, with all sides hoping a decision provides more clarity on the issue in the state.
In the meantime, Julie Anderson, whose son entered the system in 1995, counts the days as he is still facing the life-in-prison sentence for his conviction on charges of taking part in a double homicide during an alleged gang-related shooting.
“I see him die a little bit more every day,” Anderson, who visits her son five times a month, said. “Every time we say goodbye to him, it never gets easier.”
Those who argue that the Miller ruling should not be applied retroactively say that re-opening cases can undo the sense of finality and bring back painful memories for victims’ families.
“What about the families of murder victims, who thought the killer was safely put away for good?” said Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “Must they reopen the wounds and relive the horror in order to prevent release of a monstrous rapist-murderer?”
The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers states on their website that “retroactive legislation to undo the completely (sic) work of courts that have duly processed a case is a violation of victims (sic) rights and due process.”
The system of appeals and clemency, as it exists, should be enough to correct systematic mistakes, the organization says.
Anderson feels that her son could make a positive impact on the world if he were given a different sentence.
“Maybe he could do restorative justice things, mentor youth,” she said. “I think he could do a lot more on the outside than he can do on the inside.”
Eric had a few disciplinary scuffles when he was younger, but, his mother said, at age 33 he’s “nowhere near the same person he was when he got locked up.”
“We’re the only ones in the world who sentence our children to life without parole,” Anderson said, “the only ones who say that at 15, someone can’t change.”