A sentence over 40 years is a de facto life sentence for juveniles, according to a new decision from the Illinois Supreme Court. The decision, released Thursday, offers hope of an earlier release for some people serving long sentences for crimes they committed as kids and bolsters the philosophy in the criminal justice system that kids should be treated differently than adults.
The ruling comes in the case of Dimitri Buffer, who was found guilty in 2010 of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years for a crime he committed when he was 16 years old.
Advocates have argued for years that young people should receive special considerations when facing severe punishments because their brains are not yet fully developed and they are not able to weigh long-term consequences or control impulses.
In 2012, the US Supreme court decided in Miller v. Alabama that a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole, without considering the factors of youth, is cruel and unusual punishment and violates the constitution. Buffer’s attorneys argued that his sentence was long enough that it was a “de facto” life sentence and should receive the same protections.
In drawing a line at 40 years, the Illinois Supreme court leaned on state laws on juvenile sentences passed since the Miller decision.
“This specific number does not originate in court decisions, legal literature, or statistical data. It is not drawn from a hat. Rather, this number finds its origin in the entity best suited to make such a determination — the legislature,” the court said in its opinion.
Thursday’s decision says that when Buffer was was sentenced, the judge failed to consider his young age and so his sentence should be vacated and he should be re-sentenced.
The ruling will likely have implications for other people in Illinois who committed crimes as juveniles. According to data released May 2018 by Injustice Watch, “more than 160 juvenile offenders were set to serve more than 50 years in prison” and about “60 offenders had been sentenced to serve terms between 41 and 49 years.”
Judges will still be able to give kids sentences over 40 years, but they will now have to give careful consideration to whether the crime reflects, as the U.S. Supreme court has put it, “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” or if they are “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”
Robert Berlin, DuPage County State's Attorney and President of the Illinois State’s Attorney Association, said he was glad that judge’s will have room for discretion, but he expressed concerns.
“The reality is you have 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds who commit some horrific murders and could potentially be out in their early and mid-fifties,” said Berlin.
But Scott Main, a staff attorney at the Children and Family Justice Center, praised the decision and said it gives hope to people facing long sentences.
“This [decision] is showing that the state believes in second chances, that it understands youth are uniquely capable of rehabilitation and deserve to receive a sentence that at least presents the opportunity to show that they are different, that they’ve changed, that they are not the person they were when they were 16,” said Main.