Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez (center) and challengers Kim Foxx (left) and Donna More discuss criminal sentencing for juveniles with the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Friday. Sun-Times photo by Ashlee Rezin.

Editorial: Don’t automatically throw away the key for juvenile offenders

SHARE Editorial: Don’t automatically throw away the key for juvenile offenders
SHARE Editorial: Don’t automatically throw away the key for juvenile offenders

This year Cook County judges will review some 60 cases of life sentences without parole for teenage killers, as required by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The court said last month that a ruling it made in 2012, limiting the ability to impose mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, must be applied retroactively. It will give 1,500 to 2,000 inmates nationwide — about 100 in Illinois alone — a shot at reduced sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.

The sentencing reviews can’t come soon enough. Life without parole for a teen still would be possible, but the “special circumstances” surrounding the defendant’s age would have to be factored in. As the high court concluded, teens don’t have adult minds. Automatic life sentences, without regard for age, violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“A lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion, in which he recounted the rationale for the 2012 decision.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez believes she has come across a few of those rare, hardened adolescents who were found guilty of murder and received automatic life sentences. We spoke to Alvarez and her opponents in next month’s Democratic primary — Kim Foxx and Donna More — on Friday and asked about the significance of the court’s ruling.

Alvarez spoke of a 17-year-old who was found guilty of rape and double homicide. He is serving a life sentence for a heinous crime, she said.

“We do have to think about the victims,” Alvarez said. “The victims’ families are going to go through this yet again.”

Pressed on the issue of brain development in teenagers — research shows that the brains of adults aren’t fully developed until men and women reach their 20s — Alvarez said: “There’s always a concern about juveniles who are committing crimes, as to what brought them there, what is their capacity. But all those things are taken into account when we are trying the case, when the judge is imposing the sentence.”

It’s important to remember the Supreme Court did not rule out future life sentences. It said only that kids and teenagers must be evaluated under different criteria from adults.

Writing for the majority in 2012, Justice Elena Kagan noted that children lack maturity and are prone to recklessness, impulsivity and risk-taking. They are more vulnerable to outside influences and pressures. Scientific research backing this up has been piling up over the years with advances in neuroscience.

“The science around adolescent brain development has been emerging for decades,” candidate Kim Foxx, former chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said. “The reason the courts are looking at these laws and life without parole is because we know so much more about adolescent brain development. … It’s looking at the science, looking at the factors and taking into account the victims and the totality of the evidence.”

Mandatory life sentences with no chance for parole discount any chance of rehabilitation. Candidate Donna More got to the heart of the matter with this simple statement in her Sun-Times candidate questionnaire: “I believe in second chances. I believe that people can recover from their mistakes.”

“You do have to take into account the factors,” More said at Friday’s meeting with the Editorial Board. “Mental health, addiction issues, which most of the juveniles have that are committing these heinous crimes. I don’t think you necessarily shut the door forever. On the other hand, we have to be able while they are in custody to offer them some help. If we don’t give them help, the fact they’re in there and may get paroled puts society at risk.”

Let’s be clear: Nobody likes to see dangerous people, no matter how young when they committed their crimes, walk free. Alvarez, in emphasizing the “heinous” nature of their acts rather than expressing much sympathy for their incarceration, was speaking as a veteran prosecutor who has seen it all.

To  consider a young defendant’s age when imposing a life sentence is the decent — and now constitutional — thing to do.

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