The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed this fall to hear the case of a prisoner who contends his 50-year prison sentence without parole imposed for a crime he committed when he was 16 violates the federal or state constitutions.
Dimitri Buffer was given the sentence – 25 years for murder, 25 more for the use of a firearm – after being convicted of the 2009 murder of Jessica Bazan on Chicago’s South Side. After he was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing schemes amount to cruel and unusual punishment if they impose mandatory life sentences without the chance of parole for crimes committed as juveniles.
Since then appellate courts in Illinois, and courts nationwide, have been divided over how far to extend those protections, which are based on evidence that the human brain continues to develop past the first 20 years of life, making juveniles both less culpable and more capable of rehabilitation.
An Injustice Watch review last month found that at least 167 juvenile offenders, including Buffer, are serving sentences in Illinois prisons that will leave them behind bars for 50 years or more. Due to strict sentencing guidelines and the lack of parole in Illinois, those young offenders are likely to die in prison or be released with few years left to live.
Buffer, now 25, would not be released from prison for another 41 years.
The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from the state Attorney General challenging an appellate court ruling that Buffer’s sentencing violated the federal constitution based on the court decision in Miller. The panel majority opinion, authored by Illinois Appeals Court Judge James G. Fitzgerald Smith and joined by Appeals Court Judge Terrence J. Lavin, states that because the average life expectancy for prisoners like Buffer is 64 years “at best,” the sentence left Buffer without a meaningful opportunity for release.
State appellate courts have struggled with determining where to draw the line in deciding which mandatory sentences are too long, and how to measure life expectancy of prisoners.
The Illinois Supreme Court in 2016 ordered a resentencing for juvenile offender Zachary Reyes, who was sentenced to a mandatory term of 97 years. But whether, and where to draw the line below that remains uncertain.
“While we recognize the dilemma in grappling with such complex questions, contrary to the State’s position, we do not see how justice is better served by avoiding them,” the appellate court wrote in Buffer’s case.
The Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in a second case last month, involving the state’s appeal of another appellate opinion that ruled an 18-year-old offender’s sentence of 71 years, “with no chance to rehabilitate himself into a useful member of society,” violated the Illinois constitution.
The appellate opinion in Buffer’s case also called on the state legislature to provide more guidance to the courts, and highlighted the government’s failure to address changes needed to rehabilitate juvenile offenders like Buffer. “We note that despite the ‘feel-good’ decision in Reyes and the new legislation regarding juveniles in the criminal justice system, it is our view that the legislature has not taken sufficient steps to achieve any real rehabilitation of those juveniles tried in adult criminal court,” the opinion states.
“A juvenile (with or without gang affiliation) placed in an adult prison system will quite likely be forced to join a gang inside that prison system in order to survive. If, instead of cutting all the programs that could aid in rehabilitation, the legislature were to require that all juveniles serving adult sentences in adult prison were separated from adult inmates (and placed into mandatory education and/or work-training programs) and were further to impose a mandatory judicial review of a juvenile’s sentence for future consideration of parole after half of that sentence has been served, we believe that this would incentivize good behavior and better serve the purposes of rehabilitation and reinstatement into society.”
Illinois Appeals Court Judge Aurelia Pucinski concurred in the Buffer opinion, but called on the legislature to revisit the state law that mandates inmates serve 100 percent of murder sentences, and 85 percent of sentences for other serious crimes. Judge Pucinski wrote that lawmakers barely considered the potential impact on juvenile offenders transferred to adult court before adopting the law.
A bill that would have offered periodic parole opportunities for juvenile offenders was halted in the state legislature last week. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Don Harmon (D – Oak Park), failed to win consideration before the end of the legislative session. A similar bill was introduced in the legislature in 2017, but also stalled.
Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Illinois and an advocate of the bill, said the measure did not have enough Republican support to survive what she believed would have been a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner. In April, seven prosecutors from counties surrounding Cook County who had been neutral on the bill in 2017 came out in opposition to the legislation, which Cates said hurt its chances to pass.
She said that advocates will push for the bill’s reintroduction next legislative session and that she is encouraged by calls from the courts for lawmakers to step in. “Court cases don’t solve the problem, they set the ground level,” Cates said. “They’ve thrown the gauntlet back into the General Assembly’s camp.”
At least 13 other states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws giving young offenders a chance to ask for parole release or a sentence reduction after serving a portion of their sentence.