Hundreds serving mandatory life sentences under Illinois ‘three strikes’ law

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“This gives me no pleasure,” said the judge who sentenced Luis Fernandez to natural life for a non-violent drug case in 2012.

“It seems to be a pretty harsh sentence here,” implored the judge who, the same year, gave Charles Aaron a natural life sentence in a marijuana case.

“I am sure that there is… a sentence in here that is more suitable,” remarked the judge who sentenced Charles Collins in 2013 to die in prison, also for a drug case.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Soble.

Charles Collins

Articles about a Louisiana man sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison for stealing hedge clippers have circulated on social media, shared by many people who believe that such an atrocity could not happen in other parts of the United States. But like Mr. Collins, Mr. Fernandez, and Mr. Aaron, there are hundreds of men here in Illinois who have been condemned to die in prison after prosecutors sought a mandatory life sentence for their “third strike.”

I represent these three men and more than a hundred others, each of whom is serving a life sentence for armed robbery or a related crime. Like hundreds of other men condemned to die in the Illinois Department of Corrections, my clients are serving life sentences because of Illinois’ overly broad and punitive “three strikes” law, which lets prosecutors seek mandatory life sentences for people convicted for the third time of certain offenses.

When a prosecutor seeks such a sentence, the judge cannot impose a sentence other than life in prison. The facts of the crime, the condemned man’s life, the person he is today: these do not matter. The sentencing judge’s hands are tied.

Prosecutors in Illinois have used this tremendous power in ways that shock the conscience. In Champaign County, prosecutors obtained a life sentence against Michael Lightfoot for having 4.1 grams of crack cocaine in his own home. In Kankakee, they secured a life sentence against George Robinson for robbing hotels with a pellet gun, netting less than $100. In Cook County, prosecutors obtained a life sentence against Ora Riley, who stole $20 and a pack of cigarettes. Although the money was immediately recovered and returned, Mr. Riley’s life was forever lost to the prison system.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Soble.

Luis Fernandez (center) with his children before his incarceration.

These men do not represent the “worst of the worst,” yet each received what amounts to a death sentence for one horrifying but familiar reason: race.

Black people are routinely over-arrested, over-prosecuted, and over-sentenced throughout the United States. Overcriminalization of Black and Brown people at every stage of the criminal legal process has had staggering consequences: Black people are sent to prison at a rate of 5.1 times the imprisonment rate for white people. In Illinois, the racial disparities are even greater. Black people are imprisoned at nearly 10 times the rate of white people in Illinois, and Hispanic people are sent to prison twice as often as white people. Although 14% of our population is Black, more than half the prison population is Black.

The statistics worsen as the sentences get longer; more than 75% of the people serving life sentences in Illinois are Black. Ninety-four percent of the people serving life sentences in Illinois for a “third strike” armed robbery or drug cases are Black or Hispanic.

The financial costs of Illinois’ regressive, racist, and punitive sentencing scheme are as shocking as the moral ones.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Soble

Charles Aaron and his daughter pose for a picture while she visits him at prison.

Illinois spends about $1.9 billion annually on the state prison. That number will only continue to grow as people sentenced to die in prison for “third strikes” continue to age; medical care and other accommodations make incarcerating elderly people 2-5 times more expensive than incarcerating younger people. While costly, this incarceration does not make us safer. Studies have shown that older people who have served long prison sentences do not re-offend.

Each of the men sentenced to die in prison on a “third strike” has spent years—if not decades—begging the courts to correct their outrageous sentences.

But just as draconian laws have tied the hands of the judges forced to hand out life sentences in drug cases, our legal structure provides no mechanism to correct these mandatory sentences. In upholding a life sentence for a small quantity of cocaine, one judge said he did so “because, based on the law, I must.”

Our legal system has failed these men. It has failed us all. But there is now a glimmer of hope.

Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project

Over the past three months, Governor Pritzker has quietly commuted the sentences of people condemned to die in prison for their “third strike.” He has freed a renowned artist, restored life to a Vietnam veteran, and reunited a father with his daughter and grandchildren.

These small acts of grace have given hope to hundreds of men and their families. Let us pray that Governor Pritzker continues to exercise mercy and dispense real justice.

They, we, have waited long enough.

Jennifer Soble is the executive director of the Illinois Prison Project.