EDITORIAL: Young offenders with de facto life terms deserve a chance at parole

SHARE EDITORIAL: Young offenders with de facto life terms deserve a chance at parole

Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois. Supreme Court rulings that banned juvenile life sentences don’t affect dozens of offenders who received long prison terms short of life. | Sun-Times file photo

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice — in 2010 and 2012 — that life sentences for juveniles who commit crimes are unconstitutional, even in cases of murder.

Those rulings gave hundreds of prisoners, including dozens in Illinois, a chance to have their cases reviewed and their sentences shortened. If they can show that they’ve turned their lives around, maybe one day they’ll have a chance to live life outside prison.

But what about Bernard McKinley?


At 16 — egged on by a 15-year-old hollering “Shoot him! Shoot him!” — McKinley killed a man in a fit of anger over a soccer game. A Cook County judge sentenced him to two consecutive 50-year prison terms.

That’s certainly a lifetime — even though it’s not technically a life sentence.

McKinley and dozens of other offenders in Illinois are serving extremely long prison terms that amount to life sentences, as Emily Hoerner and Jeanne Kuang point out in their story for Injustice Watch, published Monday in the Sun-Times. But, unlike their counterparts serving life terms, there’s no hope in getting those sentences shortened.

That’s because the Supreme Court rulings didn’t address cases in which juveniles were given prison terms that amount to life behind bars.

But a law now pending in the Illinois Senate, SB 3228, would bring back parole for offenders who committed crimes as juveniles.

We support the idea. Juvenile justice reformers and scientific experts have pointed out that young people are less culpable for their actions because their brains are not fully developed. It’s easy for them to make terrible decisions, as McKinley did, especially because of peer pressure or in the heat of the moment. Our laws already recognize that young people don’t make decisions as well as adults: That’s why we have age requirements for voting, drinking, driving, smoking, getting married and joining the military.

SB 3228 would allow offenders who committed crimes before age 21 to petition the Prisoner Review Board for parole after serving 20 years for murder or aggravated criminal sexual assault; or 10 years for other crimes. (There’s an important exception: Offenders who commit criminal sexual assault of a child would not be eligible to petition for parole.)

Let’s be clear: Youth doesn’t absolve someone from making bad decisions. It shouldn’t exempt them from responsibility. This bill leaves punishment intact, while allowing for the possibility of redemption. If an inmate can show that he’s turned his life around and shows true remorse for a crime, he deserves a chance at parole. If he can’t show that, then he remains behind bars.

Other states have already addressed the issue of de facto life sentences. Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Florida — these are hardly states considered soft on crime — are among 13 states that have passed laws to allow juveniles to petition for parole or a reduced sentence after they serve a certain portion of their original sentence.

Illinois recognized in 1899 that juveniles who commit crimes should be treated less harshly than adults, when it set up the country’s first juvenile court system.

We shouldn’t fall behind the curve now. Lawmakers should iron out differences with victims-rights advocates and pass SB 3228.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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