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Should Juveniles Serving Life without Parole be Revisited?

February 12th, 2014 at 1:00 pm

juvenile crime IMAGEA United States Supreme Court opinion from 2012 stated that sentencing juvenile defendants to mandatory life without parole amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and such sentences were therefore declared unconstitutional. A local Chicago media outlet recently published an article about the ruling and its effects on past juvenile offenders.

The Court’s opinion and the related sentence imposed does not equally affect all juvenile offenders. Illinois was just one of a number of states that, in the 1980s and 1990s, imposed harsher penalties on those juveniles who were found guilty of violent crimes. The old sentencing rules made the sentence mandatory, which meant that a judge had much less leeway in considering circumstantial factors in imposing a sentence. Now, in light of the Supreme Court decision, such life sentences are no longer mandatory, and while they are not completely prohibited, should rather be used only in extreme cases.

The opinion has also inspired many juvenile offenders, who have long since been sentenced and their time for appeals passed, to petition the proper courts for hearings to be re-sentenced. At least five of such requests have been granted by the Appellate Court in Illinois. When those cases are argued and decided, they will provide the groundwork for whether the Supreme Court’s opinion will retroactively apply to juvenile cases that were already closed.

In making the decision to apply the rule retroactively, attorneys say the Appellate Court will likely consider whether the fairness of the criminal justice system requires the change in procedure, or whether improving the system by implementing the change going forward is fair enough. Opponents say it is unlikely the ruling will be retroactively applied, while proponents seem confident it will, as it represents a matter of due process since juveniles would have been denied the benefit of counsel presenting mitigating factors at their sentencing hearings. A decision by the Appellate Court is expected by summer.

If the ruling is retroactively applied, it will bring with it a host of problems to be addressed. Hundreds of cases of juvenile offenders will have to be heard at re-sentencing hearings, which means witnesses and victims will have to testify again. Such cases will surely present complicated and emotional situations.

If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime as a juvenile in the Chicago area, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your rights. Contact us today for a consultation.

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