Illinois Supreme Court: Juvenile protections do not extend to 18-year-olds

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The Illinois Supreme Court Thursday declined to expand sentencing protections afforded to juveniles to an 18-year-old offender, reversing an Illinois appellate court ruling that held unconstitutional a 76-year sentence without hope of parole to a defendant who committed murder at 18.

In its decision, the court voted 6-0 to reinstate the sentence imposed on Darien Harris by Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas R. Ford. The judge found Harris guilty after a non-jury trial of the first degree murder of Rondell Moore in 2011 at a gas station on Chicago’s South Side.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing schemes that require judges to impose life sentences on offenders who are 17 or younger violated the Eighth Amendment, because they do not allow judges to consider the “hallmark features” of youth, like immaturity, impetuosity and the lack of appreciation of risks and consequences. Several lower courts since then have applied Miller to sentences that are so lengthy they likely amount to life sentences.

As it upheld Harris’s conviction in 2016, a divided Illinois Appeals Court panel found that Harris’s sentence violates the Illinois Constitution’s requirement that sentences consider the goal of rehabilitation. The opinion, authored by Judge Michael B. Hyman and joined by then-Appellate Judge P. Scott Neville Jr. states 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.”

After the State of Illinois appealed, Harris contended his sentence violated both the state and federal constitutions, citing evolving science that indicates human brains continue to develop well into an individual’s early 20s, including the parts responsible for impulse control and understanding consequences.

But the Illinois Supreme Court declined Thursday to find that Harris’s sentence was illegal under either the state or federal constitutions. “New research findings do not necessarily alter that traditional line between adults and juveniles,” the Illinois Supreme Court opinion, authored by Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, states. He added: “For sentencing purposes, the age of 18 marks the present line between juveniles and adults. As an 18-year-old, defendant falls on the adult side of that line.”

The court also found that the state constitution was not necessarily violated in Harris’s case, concluding that the issue should not be decided on Harris’s direct appeal, but instead after a post-conviction proceeding at which additional evidence specific to Harris could be introduced.

Betsy Clark, President and Founder of the Juvenile Justice Center in Illinois who joined in an amicus brief supporting Harris’s claims, called the ruling a “huge disappointment” and a “shame.”

The United States remains out of touch with the rest of the developed world in its sentencing of young people, said Clark in an interview Thursday.

Shoba Mahadev, an attorney with Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center said she does not see the court’s ruling on Harris’s case as closing the door on the issue or rejecting the developing brain science, but rather as a request for more information .

“This decision doesn’t go in the direction we’d like to see exactly, but I think it is continuing to force this conversation,” Mahadev said.

Another attorney with Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, Scott Main, also offered a hopeful tone about the Illinois Supreme Court ruling: “It’s not as if they’re closing their eyes to the reality that this arbitrary line of 18 is not linked to the science,” Main said.

In a concurring opinion, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Ann M. Burke wrote that she would have closed the constitutional issue without further post-conviction proceedings.

“Determining the age at which human beings should be held fully responsible for their criminal conduct is ultimately a matter of social policy that rests on the community’s moral sense,” she wrote. “Traditionally, 18 is the age at which the line has been drawn between juveniles and adults…I cannot say that, for purposes of criminal sentencing, the Illinois Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from maintaining this traditional line.”

Justice Neville did not take part in the decision. Neville joined the Illinois Supreme Court in June, after oral arguments in the case; he and Hyman had formed the appellate court majority that the court struck down Thursday.