Some Juveniles Still Serving Life Sentences After Supreme Court Ruled Them Unconstitutional

The U.S. leads the world in incarcerating the most people — as a percentage of its population and in absolute numbers, too. It also leads the world in doling out the harshest sentences to youth.

Nowhere else in the world are youth offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole sentences — which literally means dying in prison. But here in the U.S., more than 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences were under the age of 18 when the crime they are supposed to have committed occurred. Some were as young as 14 years old.

Before the 1970s, life without parole sentences for juveniles were unheard of, but that was before the "war on drugs" began and tough-on-crime rhetoric really took hold. Politicians found it helped their electability to strike a "law and order" pose by advocating harsh punishments like the death penalty and longer prison sentences. This was part of an elite counter-attack following the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

By the early 1990s, one state after another was passing "three strikes and you're out" laws — requiring at least 20 years to life imprisonment for a third felony conviction. This was one in a wave of mandatory sentencing laws that spread across the country.

Unprecedented numbers of people went to prison, and for longer than ever before. Mandatory minimum sentences made simple possession of marijuana a crime punishable by 20, 30 and 40 years in prison. Youth as young as 13 and 14 could be tried as adults and sent to adult prisons, sometimes for the rest of their lives. As a consequence of these and other policy changes, the U.S. prison population grew astronomically — from 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million today.

It was difficult pushing back against these sentences, but there was progress. Illinois led the way in 2000 when then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on use of the death penalty — he eventually cleared death row with a mass commutation of death sentences before he left office.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. It took another five years for the Court to abolish life without parole sentences given to youth for crimes outside of murder. Of the 79 people given this sentence for a crime where no one was killed, every single one was Black — though that, of course, is not surprising given the racist nature of the criminal justice system.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to give mandatory life without parole sentences to offenders younger than 18. Regrettably, this isn't a ban on the sentence entirely. Judges and jurors can still impose it — but at least it's no longer possible for states or the federal government to require mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile offenders, where mitigating circumstances can't be taken into account.

Instead, judges and juries are now supposed to consider the circumstances surrounding any crime, including the age of the individuals convicted of committing it, their background and their capacity to change.

* * *

If any judge had been allowed to take these matters consideration, Adolfo Davis would probably not be behind bars right now.

Davis sits inside an Illinois prison today at age 37. He has spent almost two-thirds of his life there, having gone to jail at age 14.

Davis grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His mother was addicted to drugs, and his father wasn't present. His grandmother, who he spent most of his time with, suffered from serious health problems.

He grew up in poverty. One time, when Davis was 12, he was so hungry that he knocked a young girl over and stole a few dollars to get something to eat. He was a skinny kid who was teased in school for wearing the same clothes day after day.

When Davis joined a gang, the Gangster Disciples, things changed. In an interview with Al Jazeera America, Davis explained that being in the gang provided him with food, a roof over his head and money in his pocket — things he had never had before.

Two months after he turned 14, Davis was arrested and charged along with his co-defendants with the murder of two rival gang members. He was accused of being an accomplice to murder, not of actually killing anyone. But the courts considered him responsible, as if he had been the shooter. Under Illinois' mandatory sentencing law at the time, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The judge wasn't allowed to look at the circumstances of the crime, or to consider Davis' age or the effects of poverty on his life.

Davis and other juvenile lifers in Illinois just got some good news. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that all juveniles given a mandatory life without parole sentence will given new sentencing hearings, on the basis that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling should be applied retroactively.

This isn’t true in every state. Instead of the Court requiring that everyone who had received this unjust sentence in the past get a new sentencing hearing where mitigating evidence could be considered, there was no direction at all.

This left it up to the states to decide what to do with prisoners currently serving a juvenile life without parole sentence. A growing number, including California, Delaware, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas and now Illinois W. Other states aren't — like Louisiana and Pennsylvania, where more than 400 prisoners have juvenile life without parole sentences, the largest number of any state. In still other states, the issue is still being decided.

In Illinois, lawyers argued the question before the state Supreme Court in January. The Court issued its ruling on March 20, which could positively affect the life course of Adolfo Davis and nearly 100 other current Illinois prisoners.

Patricia Soung, who represented Davis in the arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court, along with pro bono counsel from DLA Piper and Skadden Arps, believes there's no question the U.S. Supreme Court decision should apply to past cases in every state. "In the end," Soung said, "it's the combination of youth, extreme punishment and the denial of judicial discretion to give an individualized sentence that makes this ruling so significant as to require retroactive fixes."

Mark Clements reached the same conclusion from a different vantage point. He was 16 years old when he was tortured by Chicago police into giving a false confession. He served 28 years of a juvenile life without parole sentence before he was released in 2009. Today, Clements is an activist trying to win justice for still-incarcerated police torture victims and juvenile offenders.

Mark talked about the day-to-day lives of men and women who were given the juvenile life without parole sentence:

Many of these inmates are out of touch with their families and friends and have not had a prison visit in 10 years. They are told they will never amount to anything productive because of the sentence they have, a sentence to die slowly behind the walls of prison. It's a repeated struggle to maintain sanity in inhumane conditions ...

If the government honestly cared about change, it would prohibit this sentence and implement a plan that can restore kids back to society, rather then to lock them up and throw away the key.

* * *

There are others in Illinois prisons who hope society will give them a second chance.

Jamie Jackson was sent to prison more than two decades ago at the age of 17 with a life without parole sentence. Asked what he would say to those wary of giving people who have committed a serious crime a second chance, he wrote:

As human beings, we aren't infallible — we all make mistakes and poor decisions, especially when we're young. I don't believe that people should be condemned and judged as immoral individuals, undeserving of a second chance, because of an ignorant mistake they made in their life ... At the end of the day, we have to be willing to give the same opportunities to others that we would want for ourselves if we were in that position.

Jackie Montanez will turn 38 this coming May. She has been locked up in Illinois prisons since she was 15 after being convicted of a gang-related crime. Montanez turned herself around in prison — one of the skills she learned is how to train dogs, although the program recently shut down for lack of funds. "I'm just so ready to finish all this and start my life over in the free world," she wrote in a recent letter. "I want to be a mom so bad and get married, so I am just ready to go home."

Montanez will go to court on April 16 for a resentencing hearing. But not all judges take kindly to revisiting cases like this one. Bryan Stevenson, an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, who argued the case before the Supreme Court that overturned mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, talks about a resentencing hearing where a judge gave a new sentence of 150 years — which is, of course, essentially a life without parole sentence.

Prison reform activists hope that judges like this one are the exception. In the meantime, hundreds of prisoners are requesting and being granted resentencing hearings on juvenile life without parole sentences.

For Adolfo Davis, Jamie Jackson and Jackie Montanez, this ruling could mean the chance to live outside of prison for the first time since their youth.

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