Before he was old enough to rent a car, Illinois law condemned my dad to die in prison
But a case before the Illinois Supreme Court could give him and others a second chance.
My dad, Antonio House, received a sentence of death by imprisonment when he was just 19 years old. Now he is 46 with a 13-year-old granddaughter.
In 1993, Cook County prosecutors charged my father with murder through Illinois’ law of accountability; my dad allegedly stood by railroad tracks and acted as a lookout while older men shot two gang rivals. This coming Tuesday, the Illinois Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about whether my dad should have a chance at a resentencing hearing.
In many ways, we lost my father before courts condemned him to die in prison. His mother — my grandmother — had been murdered a year earlier. He received no grief counseling. His father abandoned him. My dad dropped out of school; truancy officers did not bring him back.
Like many teenagers, a fog of immaturity blanketed my dad’s choices. Fortunately, none of us are who we were at 19. My father is no exception. Now he has been in prison for 28 years, more than half of his life.
My dad has grown into a mature and resilient man who, despite his life sentence, is an active and devoted father. I am a military officer and attorney, and my father is my role model. He encourages me to strive to be the best woman, mother and lawyer I can be.
Like my father, Illinois’ sentencing laws for youth have matured. We no longer mandatorily banish people younger than 18 to life in prison without parole. And, in 2019, my dad won a legal victory that could extend those protections to people 20 and younger. The Illinois First District Appellate Court said his life sentence shocks the conscience of our state because “the designation that after age 18 an individual is a mature adult appears to be somewhat arbitrary, especially in the case at bar.” The appellate court’s ruling would allow emerging adults who received life in prison without parole the opportunity to seek new sentences.
But Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is asking our state’s Supreme Court to overturn the ruling and uphold my dad’s mandatory life sentence. Attorney General Raoul is fighting to keep my father locked away forever.
That is not fairness. That is not what Illinois should stand for.
The appellate court decision is rooted in commonsense and science. The human brain does not reach full maturity by age 18, or even by age 21. It continues to develop into a person’s mid 20s, and the part of the brain that assesses risk is among the last to fully form. Our laws already recognize that people 20 and younger should be treated differently. People in this age group cannot rent a car or buy cigarettes or alcohol.
The United States Supreme Court has recognized that mandatory life sentences are akin to death sentences. “The sentence alters the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable. It deprives the convict of the most basic liberties without giving hope of restoration,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Graham v. Florida.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it’s unconstitutional to give youth under 18 a sentence of mandatory life without parole. That court ruling allowed my dad’s co-defendant, Fred, to be re-sentenced. Fred now works as a violence prevention mentor. Just a few years separated them in age, but court rulings have led to drastically different outcomes.
My dad’s appeal for a second chance is the first Illinois youthful sentencing case before the state’s Supreme Court since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Jones v. Mississippi ruling. In that decision, the Court backtracked on more than a decade of momentum in youthful sentencing and said the Eighth Amendment does not require a determination that a child is “permanently incorrigible” before the child is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. However, the ruling explicitly encourages states to pass their own laws.
Today, 26 states ban life without parole sentences for people 17 and younger. California and Washington, D.C. are among jurisdictions that extend parole eligibility to emerging adults. Lawmakers in Colorado, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Mississippi are all considering raising the age of parole eligibility to under 21 or under 25.
In 2019, Illinois became a leader in sentencing in this matter by including everyone 20 and younger in the Youthful Parole Bill. Now, lawmakers are considering HB 1064, which would ensure that more people 20 and younger cannot be sentenced to life without parole. The bill passed through the Illinois House with bipartisan co-sponsors. It isn’t retroactive, but, if it were, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law, it would allow someone in my dad’s position the possibility of parole.
My dad’s opportunity for a second chance rests with the Illinois Supreme Court. I hope the justices will follow the science and let my dad and others back into court for resentencing.
Lieutenant LaSheda Brooks is currently serving as a judge advocate for the U.S. Navy. The views she is expressing here are hers alone.
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