IL Judges Cut Terms for Most Juvenile Lifers So Far

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About 80 Illinois inmates who were given life without parole sentences for murders committed as juveniles are getting another look under the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found those mandatory sentences unconstitutional. So far, about 15 men and one woman in the state have had new hearings. Judges have affirmed life sentences for two. In the other cases, inmates received reduced sentences that already have led to their release or will within a matter of years, the Chicago Tribune reports. Underlying the decisions is a body of brain research that shows teenagers often cannot gauge the consequences of their actions, are vulnerable to peer pressure and are at risk of making impulsive decisions. Prosecutors and victims’ rights advocates, though, point to the brutal nature of the crimes and say the inmates, no matter their age when they committed the murders, do not deserve a second chance.

Experts agree the small number of cases so far in which life without parole was reaffirmed suggests that judges in Illinois are heeding the spirit of the Supreme Court’s ruling that such sentences be handed down only in rare circumstances in which inmates demonstrate “irreparable corruption.” “I think there’s a growing recognition that children are different and that given the opportunity to grow and change, individuals who commit crimes as children can still contribute in significant and positive ways to the community if given a chance,” said Heather Renwick of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a nonprofit that aims to end sentences of life without parole for juveniles. It is difficult to discern a pattern nationally because the three states with the largest juvenile life without parole populations — more than 1,000 inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana — are still in the early stages. Seventeen states have banned life sentences for juveniles. Renwick expressed concern that prosecutors in some parts of the U.S. continue to seek life without parole sentences across the board.

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