Life sentences for youth in Illinois could be eliminated under new bill

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers advanced a bill last week that would effectively abolish life sentences for any incarcerated individual who was under the age of 21 when they received their sentence.

In January, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law that makes any individual who was under the age of 21 when sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole review after they served 40 years or more of their sentence. But the measure only applied to those sentenced on or after June 1, 2019.

Senate Bill 2073, carried by Republican Sen. Seth Lewis, of Bartlett, would extend the measure retroactively to apply to any currently incarcerated individual who was sentenced before turning 21. The law signed by Pritzker in January takes effect Jan. 1, 2024, and SB 2073 would be effective July 1, 2024.

“The 3,251 current inmates who were sentenced prior to June 1, 2019, or Jan. 1, 2024, should have the opportunity (for parole review),” Lewis said in committee. “That is the essence of this bill.”

The measure passed out of committee on a 7-3 vote and awaits action from the full House.

The push to abolish youth imprisonment for life follows five U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found “children are constitutionally different from adults in their levels of culpability.” One 2012 ruling found life sentences for those under the age of 18 violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Lewis’ bill is the latest in a series of moves reexamining sentences for young people in Illinois.

The Rev. Lindsey Hammond, policy director at Restore Justice, a nonpartisan statewide organization that advocates for criminal legal reform, testified that juveniles are more capable of rehabilitation as they “grow and mature.”

“Many people convicted of crimes as children and young adults will age out of crime and not commit crimes later in life,” Hammond said. “People who receive extreme sentences as children and youth are uniquely capable of change and therefore recidivate at extremely low rates.”

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins with Marsy’s Law for Illinois, an organization that advocates for crime victims’ rights, testified against the bill. Jenkins said the bill as drafted doesn’t do enough to ensure victims or their families will be notified when an individual becomes eligible for parole.

“In the case of a retroactive change in the law, you have to do it differently,” Jenkins said in an interview. “You have to make sure that everybody that’s going to be affected is found and notified and heard from.”

Currently, the bill states the Prisoner Review Board must provide notice to the victims or victims’ families by certified mail before the parole hearing date.

Jenkins said this wasn’t enough, instead suggesting the court of origin should handle the notification rather than the Prisoner Review Board.

“I do not think that we’ve addressed in this bill, though, the structural problem of notification ... by certified mail isn’t going to find these people,” Jenkins said in committee. “Many of them didn’t register, moved, or changed addresses. They didn’t know that, after this was all over, they had to stay in touch and keep their address posted with PRB.”

Committee chair and state Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, said there would need to be a commitment to continue conversations on the bill for the committee to pass it.

Lewis agreed to keep working on an amendment to the bill.

“There was not a commitment to getting an agreed bill, there was a commitment to trying to see if we can get closer and get to that point,” Lewis said in an interview. “We may not get there because there was so much emotion involved around this process.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: New bill could eliminate life sentences for youth in Illinois