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No juvenile offender should face life in prison without even a chance of parole someday

The state Senate should quickly pass a bill that would open up a chance at redemption for juveniles sentenced to life in prison for murder.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week reined in an important limit on life sentences for juveniles. Illinois legislators can take a step forward with a bill that would set parole requirements for most juveniles serving life sentences.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week reined in an important limit on life sentences for juveniles. Illinois legislators can take a step forward with a bill that would set parole requirements for most juveniles serving life sentences.
J. Scott Applewhite | AP Photos

As an editorial board, we have long believed that if any group deserves a second chance to make good after committing even the worst of crimes, it’s teenagers.

Granting a second chance at redemption to an impressionable, impulsive 15-year-old whose crime came maybe after years of abuse or living amid violence and poverty, is the decent thing to do. And it’s a view supported by the science of adolescent brain development, which has found through ample research that our brains are not fully developed — able to rein in rash behavior, make rational decisions and weigh the long-term consequences of actions — until our mid-20s.

A 15-year-old, then, is less culpable than a 25-year-old for stealing a car and going on a joyride, committing an armed robbery or fatally shooting someone in a fit of anger.

Less culpable, yet still responsible.

And our laws should reflect that complicated reality.

Supreme Court lurches backward

Mindful of science and the resulting sea change in favor of more leniency when it comes to juvenile sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against the harshest punishments for young offenders. In 2005, the court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles is unconstitutional. In 2012, the court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles, without the possibility of parole, also are unconstitutional.

But last week, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority yanked the court a big step backward. By a 6-3 vote, the court rejected an important limit — the need for a judge to first make a judgment as to whether a young person can be rehabilitated — on juvenile life sentences.

Given that unfortunate high court ruling, a bill now pending in Springfield is all the more timely. The proposed law would grant the possibility of parole — years in the future — for young offenders sentenced to life for first-degree murder.

We urge the state Senate to quickly pass HB 1064, which was passed in the state House last week. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, and Rep. Seth Lewis, R-Bartlett, would allow offenders who were under the age of 21 when sentenced to apply to the Prisoner Review Board for parole after serving 40 years.

It’s a natural progression, proponents point out, from a decision Illinois lawmakers made in 2019. That’s when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law allowing many other young offenders serving lengthy prison terms to petition the Review Board for parole after 10 or 20 years, depending on their crimes.

Clearly, nothing here comes close to a get-out-of-jail free card. Nor should it. Murder is no youthful indiscretion. HB 1064 bill leaves substantial punishment intact, while only opening the door to the possibility of redemption and parole.

A 20-year-old who receives a life sentence for murder still would be required to spend twice his current age behind bars before earning the opportunity to show the Review Board that he deserves a chance at freedom and becoming a productive member of society.

The issue, as we see it, is not whether this proposed change in state law goes too easy but whether it perhaps goes too hard.

Let’s remember too, that these are young people who, research has shown, are highly unlikely to commit new crimes if released. One study from Pennsylvania found a recidivism rate of just 1.14% among juveniles who had been sentenced to life in prison but later granted parole.

Red states on board

Before the state Senate votes on this bill, we urge them to consider this: 25 states and the District of Columbia already have abolished all life sentences for juveniles. Among those 25 states are conservative, deep-red states such as Texas, Kentucky, North and South Dakota and West Virginia.

Illinois lawmakers — and we’re talking to you, too, Republicans — should do the same.

“We have known for a long time that life sentences for juveniles, without any opportunity to demonstrate rehabilitation, are improper in light of the science and our sense of morality,” Shobha Lakshmi Mahadev of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law told us. “The overwhelming evidence is that young people do change, grow and become rehabilitated.”

And with that should come at least the possibility of a second chance.

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