The arguments came in the case of Darien Harris, whose sentence would require him to spend at least 71 years in prison before being eligible for release. Harris was convicted of murder and attempted murder after he opened fire at a Chicago South Side gas station in 2011. He had turned 18 three months before committing the crimes.
The case reached the state’s highest court as judges and legislators in Illinois and across the country grapple with the limits of harsh sentencing schemes that automatically send youthful offenders to prison for what amount to life sentences.
On appeal was the December 2016 ruling by an Illinois Appellate Court panel finding that Harris’s sentence violated the Illinois Constitution: “While we do not minimize the seriousness of Harris’s crimes, we believe that it shocks the moral sense of the community to send this young adult to prison for the remainder of his life, with no chance to rehabilitate himself into a useful member of society,” the panel opinion states.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled six years ago in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing schemes violate the Constitution if they impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed by offenders 17 years or younger. The court’s ruling noted that the automatic nature of the sentences preclude judges from considering the “hallmark features” of youth, like immaturity, impetuosity and the lack of appreciation of risks and consequences. Research shows that the human brain, including the parts responsible for impulse control and understanding consequences, continues to develop through one’s early 20s.
That ruling has created a division among judges in Illinois and many other states on whether, and how far, to extend that logic. Injustice Watch reported this month that at least 167 Illinois prisoners are serving sentences of 50 or more years, with no hope of parole, for crimes they committed as juveniles. A bill is pending in a state Senate committee that would offer an opportunity at parole for prisoners who committed crimes before the age of 21.
The opinion in Harris’s case, written by Appellate Judge Michael B. Hyman, noted the U.S. Supreme Court had so far drawn a line at the age of 18; but that Illinois courts could interpret the state constitution to go further. The panel opinion, joined by Appellate Judge P. Scott Neville Jr., noted that the sentencing scheme requiring lengthy automatic sentences for the use of a firearm, adding on a total 46 years to Harris’s sentence, had an “outsized” effect and prohibited the trial judge “from constructing a sentence that had any chance of returning Harris to society, even if the court thought that Harris was a good candidate to rehabilitate himself.”
The appellate panel noted that Harris had a stable family, no prior criminal history, and that he had obtained his GED while awaiting trial. Appellate Judge Mary Anne Mason dissented from the panel ruling.
At the time he sentenced Harris for the murder of Rondell Moore and the attempted murder of three others, Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas R. Ford told the defendant that his hands were largely tied. Ford said as he sentenced Harris: “I am sorry that the sentencing parameters are such that my options are somewhat limited. Although, I do feel you should be treated seriously.”
At arguments in the Illinois Supreme Court courtroom in Springfield, assistant attorney general Gopi Kashyap asked the court to reinstate Ford’s sentence and to leave questions of juvenile sentencing up to elected officials. In a brief submitted to the court, the state said allowing the ruling to stand would be a radical departure from the court’s previous decisions.
“Our democratically determined line is 18 and that’s the one that’s widely accepted not just in Illinois but across the country,” Kashyap said during oral arguments. “We’re asking that the court not substitute its judgment for that of the legislature, particularly when any other line would be just as arbitrary.”
Assistant appellate defender Lauren A. Bauser, representing Harris, told the court that it cannot ignore the scientific medical consensus on brain development, and that the U.S. Supreme Court had used such evidence in its own landmark decisions on juvenile sentencing that invalidated many legislative statutes.
“This Court need not wait for the United States Supreme Court to extend the bright line rule of Miller to young adults ages 18-21,” Harris’s attorneys contended in their written brief. “Traditionally, Illinois has been at the forefront of juvenile reform.”
Bauser fielded several questions from the judges about how a ruling in Harris’s favor would play out in the lower courts. She asked the court to create a rule for offenders who committed crimes before turning 21, requiring judges to consider factors of youth during sentencing. If the state’s highest court is not yet ready to draw a line at age 21, Bauser said, the Illinois Constitution should allow for a case by case analysis for sentencing youthful defendants like Harris.