After 40 years, Illinois legislature moves to restore possible parole for youth

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Since 1978, Illinois law has eliminated the possibility of parole for prisoners no matter how young they were at the time of the crime.

The Illinois legislature took a step to change that Wednesday, passing and sending to the governor a bill to restore the possibility of parole for offenders who committed crimes before they were 21 years old.

Currently, a small group of aging Illinois inmates who committed crimes before the 1978 law went into effect can still ask for parole from the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The bill’s longtime sponsor, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), said in an interview that the bill, which passed 67-41 in the House on Wednesday after earlier passing the Senate 36-17,  had advanced with bipartisan support. Currie, who is retiring at the end of the term this month, said it was time for this to happen.

“This is the beginning of, I would say, a return to parole as an option,” she said. “We chose this age group because we’ve already had hints from the U.S. Supreme Court that young minds should be understood to be different from more experienced people. That was the motive for us here.”

In recent years, courts across the country began questioning whether young offenders should be treated the same as adults, as research showed that the human brain continues developing in key areas like impulse control and assessing consequences into ones early 20s.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2012 landmark case that sentencing schemes requiring mandatory life sentences without the opportunity for parole for juvenile offenders amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Currie said she hopes in the future that Illinois joins the 34 other states in the country that establish parole opportunities for all offenders.

The bill only offers future opportunities for parole to new offenders. That means the more than 167 juvenile offenders set to serve more than 50 years in Illinois prisons, detailed in a May Injustice Watch review, will not be eligible for parole under the new bill.

The bill gives the Illinois Prisoner Review Board authority to determine whether youthful offenders will receive parole, and limits the number of times an offender can ask the Board for parole. For offenders convicted of first-degree murder or aggravated sexual assault, prisoners could seek parole after 20 years into their sentences, and then 10 years later; if parole is denied both times, no further review is permitted.

For other eligible offenders, the first opportunity at parole would be 10 years into their sentence, with two more chances for parole at five-year increments.

Young offenders convicted of killing police officers, as well as offenders sentenced to natural life would not be eligible for parole under the bill.

Jobi Cates, an advocate for the bill and Executive Director at Restore Justice Illinois, said she worked over the last few years with victim’s rights groups and with an organization of state’s attorneys from across the state to come up with a compromise. In the end, both groups were neutral on the bill.

“It’s both groundbreaking and historic on the one hand, and completely modest and first step-ish on the other hand,” Cates said of the bill’s passage through the state legislature. “We haven’t had any new opportunities for parole since 1978. We’d like to see it be inclusive of a broader group.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the final Illinois House vote count. The vote was 67-41.