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Illinois lawmakers revisit life sentences without parole for juveniles

Illinois lawmakers are still negotiating a bill that would ban juveniles from receiving life sentences in prison. It comes nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

About 100 of Illinois’ prison inmates are serving life sentences that they received as juveniles. Since the Supreme Court’s decision last year, state lawmakers are taking another look at how the state sentences minors.

Jobi Cates, with Human Rights Watch, said the Supreme Court acknowledged in the majority opinion that young teens’ minds aren’t fully developed and may not understand the consequences of what they’re facing.

“The brain science tells us that we need to take another look when their brains have fully matured and that’s why we believe that a review well into the time served is critical to meeting the standards set by the Supreme Court,” Cates said.

Legislation is still being negotiated, but one proposal would allow those facing a long sentence to petition for a hearing after serving 15 years.

“That this young man is going to die in that prison is - it compounds the tragedy of the original crime,” she said.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie is taking the lead on the legislation in Springfield. She said prosecutors and victims’ rights groups are concerned about what the changing law will mean to those already sentenced to life without parole.

“Certainly for the families, there’s obviously a concern that what they thought was more or less a done deal could now be re-opened,” Currie said.

Currie said negotiations are expected to continue this week.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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