‘Natural life’ in prison for young offenders is indefensible

SHARE ‘Natural life’ in prison for young offenders is indefensible

Rep. Jan Schakowsky argues for a change in Illinois to give young offenders sentenced to “natural life” in prison a chance for parole. | AP file photo

I was invited to speak to a class conducted every Wednesday by Northwestern Philosophy Professor Jennifer Lackey that is focused on values, and in particular the issue of mass incarceration.

But this was no ordinary class. It was far from the Northwestern campus at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, and all 15students had been sentenced to life in prison. Driving there in the rain, I wondered what I would say to them, and what they would be like. It turns out, I learned more in the nearly two hours I spent with these students than they learned from me.


As a former teacher and someone who speaks to many students every year, I found these to be among the most engaged, the most attentive and enthusiastic, respectful and diligent, and, remarkably ambitious about learning as much as they could.

It’s true that these men, for the most part, committed terrible crimes. But it is also true that most were convicted of committing murder when they were young, some very young. By this time they have served decades in prison.

When they were convicted, one was 15 years old, two were 16, and a third 17. One was convicted on a charge of “accountability” – not the killer but associated with the murder. He was offered a plea deal of eleven years, but he refused to take it because he wanted to fight the charge in court. Instead he was sentenced to life in prison. Had he pled, he would have been out in 1995.

Nearly all of the prisoners were 23 years old or younger when they committed these serious offences, meaning, according to scientists, the part of their brain controlling impulse and judgment was not fully developed. Some have spent over a decade in solitary confinement, and some were on death row almost half their lives until Illinois eliminated the death penalty. Only two are white; the others black or Latino.

One of the first lessons they taught me was about the Illinois Constitution, Title I, Section 11. It reads, “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” These students believe the Constitution is not being followed, and after spending even a short period of time with them, it’s hard to disagree.

To quote their teacher, Professor Lackey, who treks out to Stateville every Wednesday:

“A sentence of ‘natural life’ means there are no parole hearings, no credit for time served, no possibility of release. Short of a successful appeal or an executive pardon, such a sentence means that the convicted will, in no uncertain terms, die behind bars… Natural life sentences say there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal. Nothing. So no matter how unrecognizable a prisoner is from his earlier self, this is utterly irrelevant to whether he should be incarcerated.”

Fortunately, there is growing bipartisan recognition that the criminal justice system is broken, that despite having only 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners at great cost to taxpayers. The vast majority of prisoners are people of color and poor.

Legislation proposed at the state and national levels begins to dismantle the regime of mass incarceration, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, treatment rather than jail for non-violent drug offenders, addressing police misconduct, support for inmates leaving prison and more.

With a new reform-minded Cook County State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits life sentences for juveniles, there may be hope in the near term for at least four of the prisoners I met.

The students at Stateville asked me for one thing in particular. They asked me to encourage Gov.Bruce Rauner to accept the invitation he was sent to attend their class. A commission appointed by the governor has already made some important prison reform recommendations and is scheduled to issue another report.

Unfortunately, so far, nothing was proposed that would address the men I met at Stateville. I have written and spoken to Gov. Rauner and hope that he will take the time to visit the Wednesday class at Stateville.

As a country, we would all do well to heed the words of Pope Francis in his recent treatise. He said, “No one can be condemned forever.”

Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, has represented Illinois’ 9th Congressional District, covering parts of Chicago’s North Side and suburbs, since 1999.

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