Question before court: How long is too long for sentencing youthful offenders?

The Illinois Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Tuesday on whether a 16-year-old offender’s 50-year sentence without the opportunity for parole violates the state or federal constitutions.

The hearing comes amid reforms by courts and state legislators in Illinois and across the country that have reduced the likelihood of prison terms that leave youthful offenders dying in prison without any hope of parole.

The Illinois case involves the murder conviction of Dimitri Buffer, who in 2009 shot into a car prosecutors said he mistakenly believed belonged to rival gang members, killing 25-year-old Jessica Bazan. After he was convicted, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Wilson sentenced him to serve 25 years in prison for the murder, plus 25 more for using a firearm, with no opportunity for release until after his 66th birthday.

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On appeal, Buffer contended his sentence, which offers no chance for parole, amounts to a life term. A panel of three state appellate court judges agreed in March 2017, noting that the Buffer’s sentence extended two years beyond his life expectancy. The appellate panel ordered that Buffer be resentenced, taking into consideration his age, immaturity and poor decision making.

The state’s appeal of that decision led to Tuesday’s scheduled argument.

The appellate court based its decision on a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that required more leniency toward juvenile offenders, including the landmark 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama that deemed mandatory sentencing schemes requiring automatic life sentences for those under 18 unconstitutional.

That ruling was bolstered by the growing body of scientific research showing that brain development continues well into an individual’s early 20s.

A painting by Addolfo Davis, a juvenile who was originally sentenced to life imprisonment in Illinois.

“Children are different” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion, noting the “hallmark features” of youth like impulse control, immaturity and the failure to appreciate consequences, as well as the greater potential for juveniles to change.

The U.S. Supreme Court did not prohibit trial courts from sentencing juveniles to life terms of imprisonment, but required that such sentences not be automatic. Instead, the court ruled that before doling out life sentences, judges must consider and weigh the factors associated with an adolescent’s developing brain and potential for rehabilitation.

An Injustice Watch review last May found that at least 167 juvenile offenders are serving sentences of 50 years or more in Illinois prisons before they will become eligible for release. Illinois Department of Corrections data from September revealed 32 juvenile offenders whose sentences leave them eligible for release after serving 50 years.

In appealing the court’s decision in Buffer’s case, the state noted that several other appellate panels have declined to grant resentencing to juvenile offenders with prison terms similar to Buffer’s.

“Experience and common sense compel the conclusion that a 50-year sentence for a juvenile offender is not ‘unsurvivable’ and thus is not prohibited for juvenile homicide offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” Assistant Attorney General Gopi Kashyap wrote in the brief, requesting that the court reinstate the 50-year sentence.

Dimitri Buffer

Abigail Blachman / Injustice Watch

An illustration of Dimitri Buffer.

Assistant Appellate Defender Christopher Gehrke, representing Buffer, noted in response that at least 28 states and the District of Columbia have laws and policies in place that award juvenile offenders convicted of murder opportunities for parole or release well before serving 50 years in prison.

Gehrke argued in his brief that, in Miller and other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has highlighted the importance of rehabilitation, not just release, for juvenile offenders. Buffer has little chance to meaningfully re-enter society, he wrote, due to the “few rehabilitative programs and dangerously poor health care” in Illinois prisons—the latter being the subject of a pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

In Illinois and all across the country, courts have continued to wrestle with the question of how long is too long to imprison the most serious juvenile offenders.

Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center which has advocated for shorter sentences for juveniles, said that across the nation this issue is still brewing, and that courts continue to struggle with how to answer the question of which sentences are too long.

There has been some movement on the issue. Some states have now passed laws introducing parole opportunities to juveniles convicted of crimes to look at cases at an individual level, she said.

“The more that we see states moving in that direction I think it does give us a better opportunity of having a different conversation around the country,” Levick said, noting that it was not long ago that juveniles could still be sentenced to death.

In 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a 97-year mandatory sentence amounted to an unconstitutional automatic life term.

Graphic by Jeanne Kuang

Both the prosecution and defense in Buffer’s case have raised in their briefs the question of how long a sentence short of 97-years amounts to a life term.

Prosecutor Kashyap requested in the filing that the high court determine what number of years constitutes a life sentence for a juvenile homicide offender, somewhere in the range of 54 and 59 years, as prosecutors, courts and defendants “need to know” the boundaries.

Gehrke told the state high court that drawing a bright line on how many years amounts to a de facto life term was not necessary. If the court were to decide on a number of years, however, it should be drawn at 41, Gehrke wrote.

“Even if Buffer survives his sentence, he will at best enter a world he left as a teenaged boy as a man in his late sixties, after a half-century of incarceration,” Gehrke wrote. “His family and friends will likely be estranged or deceased; he will have effectively lost his chance to establish a career, marry, or raise a family; and he will not have any education, job training or employment prospects. This sentence dooms Buffer to spend the last few years of his life impoverished, homeless, and alone.”

In 2016, as the 97-year sentence imposed on Zachary Reyes made its way to the state high court, the legislature took a step to give more leeway to judges in sentencing juvenile offenders by leaving once-mandatory sentence enhancements related to the use of a firearm up to a judge’s discretion. The change lowered the mandatory minimum sentence for most juvenile offenders convicted of first degree murder with a firearm from 45 to 20 years.

And last November, the Illinois legislature sent a bill to the governor that would bring back incremental parole opportunities to offenders younger than 21. That bill, which remains unsigned, would not apply to juvenile offenders like Buffer or Reyes because it is not retroactive.

The vast majority of inmates in Illinois are not eligible for parole because a state law in 1978 largely curtailed use of the practice.