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.