Lake County case shows why Illinois should abolish the felony murder rule

A conviction for felony murder usually results in youthful offenders being sentenced to extreme periods of incarceration, including for life.

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The Illinois Legislature should abolish the felony murder law that results in overly harsh treatment of young offenders, writes the author.

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Lake County authorities this week charged five teenagers with the murder of their 14-year-old friend on Tuesday night — though none of them pulled the trigger.

News outlets are reporting the basics of the case:

A homeowner allegedly caught the teens trying to steal his car; the homeowner, saying he feared for his life, fired a gun at the group. The 14-year-old was hit in the head and later died at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville.

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Reports also indicate that Lake County officials have chosen to apply an archaic, broad statute to charge the other five teenagers with their companion’s murder. In Illinois, a person can be charged with first-degree murder even if they did not inflict any harm or commit an act of violence.

Under this rule, known as felony murder, people are often convicted of first-degree murder when a death is unintentional or is caused by another person, because it occurred during the commission or attempted commission of a felony.

Felony murder is a draconian charge for anyone; but, when children or young adults are charged with felony murder, they are branded “violent offenders” for life, and they are subject to adult court, adult prison sentences, and the same sentencing range as the person who “pulled the trigger.”

A conviction for felony murder usually results in youthful offenders being sentenced to extreme periods of incarceration, including for life. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and Illinois courts have repeatedly affirmed that young people are more likely to act in groups and are more susceptible to peer pressure, which also makes them more likely than adults to become involved in accomplice crimes, such as those described in the Lake County shooting.

The United States is the only country in the world where the felony murder rule still exists, and Illinois has one of the broadest statutes in the country. While some states have no felony murder statute, most only allow people to be charged for deaths they or their co-defendants caused. Illinois is one of just 18 states that allows people, including children, to be charged for any deaths that occur in the commission or attempted commission of the crime, including deaths of co-defendants, as is the case in Lake County.

This remains the law in Illinois even though the U.S. Supreme Court has established youthful offenders lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility making them more reckless, impulsive, and risk-prone than adults, and are more receptive to rehabilitation.

Science suggests our brains aren’t fully developed until our mid-20s. But you don’t need to be a scientist to understand that the vast majority of youth are more reckless, impulsive and risk-prone than they will be as adults. This is why car insurance rates go down for people upon reaching the age of 25.

The Illinois law is out of step with the courts, with science, and with common sense.

Statewide, we have no way to know how many children and young adults have been charged using this statute. Our criminal justice data systems do not differentiate between who was convicted of first-degree murder for actually committing murder and those convicted under the felony murder rule. This means that not only do youth suffer adult consequences, if they are ever released, they must live with a criminal record that potential employers, landlords, and others will only see as “murder,” not as “accomplice.”

This Lake County case is a tragic example of the felony murder statutue being grossly missapplied. If convicted, the teenagers will spend much of their lives behind bars. It’s time for Illinois, and the 17 remaining states around the country, to do away with these outmoded laws that deny children and young adults the opportunity to receive a right-sized sentence for their offenses.

Jobi Cates is executive director of Restore Justice, which advocates for fairness and compassion throughout the Illinois criminal justice system, with a primary focus on those affected by extreme sentences imposed on youth.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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