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Illinois Reform Part of a Wave of Challenges to Age Cutoff of Youth Justice

Also today: Criminal justice reform bills advance in Montana, Oklahoma, and elsewhere

In This Edition of the Political Report

April 25, 2019:

  • Legislative roundup: Montana close to protecting driver’s licenses; Oklahoma package moves forward; and more

You can also visit the Political Report’s portal into criminal justice in the 2019 elections.

Nationwide: New Illinois law challenges age cutoff, targets virtual life sentences. What does that mean for reform?

Why should people be cut off from the logic of having a separate youth justice system—that people change, that people grow, that people should not be defined by an act—because they are a day over 18?

A new Illinois reform (House Bill 531), signed into law this month by Governor J.B. Pritzker, defies the usual pattern that in the United States even bold youth justice reforms stop at the age of majority, if not earlier.

It does so by creating a parole process for people convicted of offenses they committed before the age of 21, providing them review after either 10 years or 20 years depending on the offense category. Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice, an Illinois-based group that helped craft and steer HB 531, told me that the law starts “chipping away at what’s been a completely merciless system.”

While the law has major limitations, it also opens doors to think differently about what criminal justice reform can look like. It builds on two reform areas that are bubbling up nationwide—first in challenging the upper limit of youth justice, and second in promoting a mechanism with which to counter virtual life sentences.

Reintroducing a parole process

Illinois eliminated its parole process in 1978. Last year, an Injustice Watch investigation found that 167 people who were incarcerated in Illinois for crimes they committed as minors were scheduled to spend at least 50 years in prison without parole eligibility.

HB 531 seeks to reduce life sentences like these in the future. According to the Chicago Tribune, it is the first Illinois measure to allow some new group of people to petition for discretionary parole since 1978. It reintroduces in Illinois the idea that one should at least have the ability to petition for parole, and it enables such petitions within the first two decades of incarceration rather than centuries in the future.

It will not help those 167 prisoners, however, since it is not retroactive. The law also has other restrictions that will limit its impact. It provides individuals a finite number of reviews over the course of their sentences. Also, people convicted of certain offenses and people who receive a natural life sentence have been carved-out from the legislation.

Still, future Illinois reforms can now jump off of this new law rather than argue for creating the very notion of parole. “You could continue raising the age, you could incrementally increase the number of reviews, you could increase the quality of review or the standards of how reviews are conducted,” Cates said. “There are dozens of ways you could make this better.”

In taking a first restricted step against life and virtual life sentences and by applying it to young adults, Illinois’s new law emulates a series of reforms recently adopted in California.

In 2014, California adopted a system for people who committed crimes as minors to eventually be granted a “youth offender parole hearing.” (The hearing would come 15 to 25 years after  incarceration.) Subsequent bills raised the age of eligibility for this “youthful” hearing, first to people under 23 and then to people under 26.

Lawmakers elsewhere have proposed similar if not bolder legislation. In at least two states, legislation introduced this year would make all incarcerated individuals (regardless of age) eligible for parole after 25 years of incarceration. Elsewhere, legislative proposals create opportunities for release, or move them forward in time, but use a cutoff age of 18.

In Rhode Island, a pending bill would mandate that a person be eligible for parole after 15 years if convicted as a minor. State Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, who filed this bill in the Rhode Island House where it has stalled, wrote in an email that she believed in “the restorative power of love to change and make us better human beings in spite of our past.”

Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Tennessee also have active bills that would end life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Raising the age to 21, or at least 18

The Illinois law also challenges the idea that youth justice stops at 18.

This upper line is ingrained in many criminal legal rules, but efforts are multiplying nationwide to question why it should be such a strict line. 

Last year, Vermont became the first state to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction above 18. It now steers some 18- and 19-year-olds to its juvenile justice system.

HB 531 does not do this. It makes some young adults convicted in the adult system eligible for parole. But Illinois is now considering separate legislation to emulate Vermont and raise the age until which people charged with misdemeanors are treated as juveniles from 18 to 21.

“Think about what the makeup of this 18-, 19-, 20-year-old population and where we would like to have them,” Vincent Schiraldi, who heads Columbia University’s Justice Lab, told me. “The adult system is a meat grinder. The juvenile system is far from perfect, but at least it gives confidentiality protection, and it takes a shot at rehabilitation. No one is pretending rehabilitation occurs in the adult situation.”

Elizabeth Clarke, the executive director of the Illinois-based Juvenile Justice Initiative, makes a similar case. “Older adolescents need the same protections that we extend to youth under the age of 18,” she wrote in an email. She pointed to the difference in how young adults are treated in the U.S. and in Germany, whose youth justice system is far more expansive.

Connecticut and Massachusetts advocates have also championed allowing some defendants up to age 21 to qualify for juvenile court, though these efforts have not been successful so far.

Meanwhile, a handful of states are still debating getting to 18.

There are four states—Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin—where the juvenile system stops at 17 for everyone, and where there is no scheduled change on the horizon. (Some other states like Missouri and New York have raised this age to 18 but have yet to fully implement the reform.) This means that in those four states 17-year-olds are automatically treated as adults.

Raising the age to 18 has been a priority for criminal justice reform advocates in these states.

On Wednesday, the Michigan Senate adopted a package of bills that would raise the age to 18. This package, which would automatically treat 17-year olds as juveniles, has already advanced past the committee stage in the state House.

In the three other states, similar legislation has yet to move as far. A bill moved out of one Texas committee in March. Another is still in committee in Georgia. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers included a “Raise the Age” reform in his first proposed budget since becoming governor.

Such bills do not guarantee that minors will remain in the juvenile justice system. They only extend that system, so that 17-year-olds are not excluded from it just by virtue of their age.

That’s because, besides the age of juvenile jurisdiction, there is a separate question as to the circumstances under which juvenile defendants get treated as adults. Even 11- or 12-year-old children, if not younger ones, can be tried as adults.

Reform proposals abound whose aim is to narrow, if not eliminate, these circumstances. In 2018, for instance, California barred anyone younger than 16 from being prosecuted as an adult regardless of the offense. Earlier this month, Oregon’s Senate adopted a bill that would end the requirement that minors who commit certain offenses necessarily be treated as adults.

This is an abridged version of an article that is available in full on the Political Report.

The politics of prosecutors: Dallas debates new reforms; Michigan prosecutor faces investigation; and more

Dallas County, Texas: Since District Attorney John Creuzot announced a package of reforms two weeks ago, he has faced opposition from Republican Governor Greg Abbott, police groups, and some members of the City Council. “It’s wealth redistribution by theft,” Abbott said of Creuzot’s new policy of not prosecuting theft of items of necessity. But the Dallas Morning News also reports that some conservative proponents of criminal justice reform are defending Creuzot, a Democrat.

Macomb County, Michigan: County Prosecutor Eric Smith is under investigation by the state attorney general for how he allegedly spent asset forfeiture funds. He is accused of inappropriately using the funds to pay for parties and furniture, and the state police raided his office last week.

Queens, New York: The Political Report last week previewed New York’s 26 elections for DA. Among them is the seven-way Democratic primary in Queens, in which many candidates are proclaiming their commitment to criminal justice reform. That makes it harder to distinguish the fault lines between them. Writing in the Gotham Gazette, City University of New York law professor Steven Zeidman details 13 policy questions that the Queens candidates should answer on that office’s prosecutorial practices, for instance whether they would stop asking defendants to waive some of their rights in plea negotiations. The reforms recently adopted by the legislature could have gone further in that regard.

Legislative roundup: Montana close to protecting driver’s licenses; Oklahoma package moves forward; and more

Alabama: Detention conditions

Horrid conditions in Alabama prisons have been under the spotlight since the Justice Department released a report last month detailing the state carceral system’s “severe, systemic” violations. In an earlier report, in 2014, the DOJ assailed one women’s prison for its history of “sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.” The report found that “prisoners are compelled to submit to unlawful sexual advances” to “obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products.” The state House passed a bill last week that would require prisons and jails to provide these products to incarcerated women. “What I’m hearing is they were not receiving their products in a timely manner, which was causing women to start making their own products,” said Representative Rolanda Hollis, the bill’s sponsor.

Arizona: Legislative climate

Criminal justice reform bills steadily died during Arizona’s legislative session, as the Political Report chronicled. Steven Hsieh reports in the Phoenix New Times that the last bill standing is exceedingly narrow, and that its champions are the very people who reportedly sank the earlier bills, state Senator Eddie Farnsworth and Maricopa County District Attorney Bill Montgomery. “Advocates cast the bill as a cynical attempt to give off the appearance of reform without actually making a significant reduction in the state’s prison population,” Hseih writes.

Missouri: Death penalty

Missouri is one of only three states that allows someone to be sentenced to death even if a jury does not reach unanimity on sentencing. If the jury deadlocks, state law allows judges to impose the death penalty no matter the majority position. Republican lawmakers Shamed Dogan and Paul Wieland have introduced legislation (House Bill 811 and Senate Bill 288) that would require a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty. The proposal easily made it out of two House committees in April. It received a hearing in the Senate last week. 

Montana: Driver’s licenses

The signature of Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, is all that is needed for Montana to halt the suspension of driver’s licenses over a failure to pay fines and fees, a practice that can trigger mounting legal and economic hardships. This bill was left for dead in early April when a Senate committee voted to table the legislation, but there was enough support for the full chamber to blast House Bill 217 out of committee and adopt it on April 18, a month after the legislation passed the House. The reform, which is now on the governor’s desk, was championed jointly by the ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity.

Oklahoma: Sentencing reform

A slate of reforms that would decrease incarceration over lower-level charges is working its way through the Legislature. Six bills have all made it through one chamber and multiple committees in the other. The highest-profile proposal is HB 1269, which I detailed in March. It would retroactively reduce drug possession and some theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Other bills would waive some fines and fees and lessen some sentences.

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on legislative developments

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!