The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled in a landmark decision Thursday that a 41-year sentence for a juvenile offender constitutes the equivalent of a life term.
The decision triggers sentencing protections for juvenile offenders who are sentenced to more than 40 years in prison.
The decision came in the case of Dimitri Buffer, who at 16 shot into a vehicle and killed 25-year-old Jessica Bazan on Chicago’s South Side. Buffer was convicted and sentenced to serve 50 years for the 2009 slaying, 25 years for the murder plus a mandatory 25 years for committing the crime with a firearm.
After his trial was completed, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors are unconstitutional, and required that trial judges take into account features of youth, like poor decision making and lack of understanding long-term consequences, because children are different than adults.
Since then, courts and legislatures across the country have struggled with how to treat the most serious youthful offenders, and how many years in prison with no hope for parole amounts to a life term for a juvenile.
Buffer’s attorneys argued before the court in January that Cook County Circuit Judge Thaddeus Wilson had not adequately considered his youth at sentencing, and that his lengthy prison term constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Now, Buffer’s case will be sent back to the trial court for resentencing.
During oral arguments Assistant Attorney General Gopi Kashyap urged the court to draw a line, somewhere above 50 years for a sentence to constitute a life term for a juvenile. She noted that at least 44 cases were pending before the Illinois Supreme Court in which juveniles with sentences between 43 and 78 years were currently challenging their prison terms as de facto life sentences.
Instead, the court sided with Buffer’s attorney, Assistant Appellate Defender Christopher Gehrke, who asked the court to draw that line at 41.
The court opinion states that it came to the 40-year line not on its own, but by interpreting the legislative intent from a 2016 law that determined the mandatory minimum sentence for a subset of juvenile offenders who commit murders of police officers, among other heinous crimes. “This specific number does not originate in court decisions, legal literature, or statistical data. It is not drawn from a hat,” Neville wrote in the opinion. “Rather, this number finds its origin in the entity best suited to make such a determination—the legislature.”
The ruling could have wide implications across the state. Before the legislature in 2016 amended the law, giving judges discretion to ignore previously mandatory firearm sentencing terms, juvenile offenders who committed murder with a firearm faced a mandatory minimum prison term of 45 years. Now, many of those offenders will be eligible for resentencing because the court did not have the discretion to adequately consider their youth.
Shobha Mahadev, an attorney with Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, said it is difficult to say exactly how many individuals the ruling will affect, especially because questions remain regarding what qualifies as adequate consideration of youth.
“For sentences that proceeded everything we know about kids and development, anything sort of before the past decade, I would be skeptical as to whether those sentences really took youth into account,” Mahadev said.
Last May, Injustice Watch reported on the more than 160 juvenile offenders set to serve more than 50 years in prison, including roughly 40 inmates with life terms. At that time, about 60 offenders had been sentenced to serve terms between 41 and 49 years, according Illinois Department of Corrections data.
Assistant appellate defender Gehrke said he was elated at the ruling.
“There’s a lot of juvenile offenders in prison who’ve been awaiting this decision,” Gehrke said in a telephone interview Thursday.