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Lawyers: Ruling May Not Impact State's Young Offenders

Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, April 23, 2021. Seated from left are Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
Erin Schaff/AP
Pool New York Times
The newly-formed conservative majority of the Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 in April to deny a Mississippi man, Brett Jones, a chance to reduce the life term he began serving after he fatally stabbed his grandfather.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling considered a disappointing setback for efforts to spare young offenders from a life in prison without parole is expected to have little impact in Illinois, where changes in the law shield most youth from a lifetime behind bars.

The newly-formed conservative majority of the Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 in April to deny a Mississippi man, Brett Jones, a chance to reduce the life term he began serving after he fatally stabbed his grandfather. The defendant was 15 at the time.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored the majority opinion that a judge is not required to consider whether a young offender is permanently “incorrigible” as part of the sentencing process. The fact that Mississippi law gives a judge the option of life or a lesser term in prison is sufficient to protect the defendant’s constitutional rights, the court ruled.

Elizabeth Clark, founder of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, finds the opinion lacking, both in its narrow view of mandatory protections, and its potential to keep young adults from returning to society.

“It’s profoundly disappointing,” Clark said of the ruling. The court “not only backs away from its earlier decisions that consider, not just youth, but the distinctive attributes of youth.”

The lack of recognition in the Jones ruling of standards for juveniles accused of crimes in other countries is another disappointing flaw, said Clark. Incarceration and life sentences for juveniles are banned in many countries, she said.

“We’re one of the few countries in the world that sentences children to die in prison, and allows children to be sentenced to life without parole. This is such a shocking deprivation of human rights for children,” said Clark.

Clark and other advocates have pushed for reforms in Illinois law that include specific sentencing considerations for young adults.

“I think Illinois legislators and judges are moving beyond this. I’m hopeful they will continue to be on the path they’ve been on, to recognize that children are different and they deserve a different standard,” said Clark.

The ruling left in place the process laid out in two previous cases for determining a youth’s potential for rehabilitation, noted Scott Main, staff attorney with the Illinois Juvenile Defender Resource Center, a division of the Office of State Appellate Defender. But future state court decisions will determine the ruling’s impact in Illinois, he said.

“It’s too early to say. I think we will have to watch and see exactly what our courts do,” said Main.

The Illinois Supreme Court “has been out in front of the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Main, when it comes to putting measures in place to require judges to evaluate each offender individually. The state’s high court ordered the retroactive review of life sentences before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its mandate for about 1,500 cases nationwide, said Main.

Clark said she is optimistic that federal judges may be given more discretion in sentencing juveniles under two bills introduced in April. Minimum sentences for children convicted of crimes against person who sexually abused them would be waived under the bill. Judge would be allowed to consider “the diminished culpability of juveniles compared to that of adults” in reaching their decisions.

Local Cases

Two McLean County men are serving shorter sentences after judges reduced what could have been life sentences for crimes committed while they were teens.

Byron Merriweather’s 70-year term was cut in half in April by Judge Casey Costigan after testimony from the 35-year-old about changes he’s made to his life since he fired the gun that killed a man in Miller Park in 2003.

“I did it. I’m sorry but I can’t take it back,” Merriweather told the judge at his second sentencing hearing. Breaking free from the grip of street gangs has been difficult in prison, said Merriweather, who hopes to start an organization to help troubled youth when he is released.

Merriweather will be in court in June to ask Costigan to reconsider the 35-year sentence and instead allow him to serve a term closer to the 20-year minimum for murder. State law gives offenders like Merriweather than chance to apply for parole after 20 years, something Merriweather indicated he plans to pursue when he is eligible in five years.

In its comments sending the Merriweather case back to McLean County for a new sentencing, the Fourth District Appellate Court noted that the 2006 sentencing decision did not include a finding that Merriweather was “that rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” as required by state law.

Adam Ghrist, a former state and federal prosecutor, argued twice that Brett Wilson, who was a teenager at the time charges were filed, should spend life in prison for sexually assaulting three children. Wilson’s life sentence was mandatory in 2013 for sex offenders with multiple victims. In 2015, the Fourth District Appellate Court ordered a new sentencing for Wilson, citing a higher court ruling that barred mandatory life sentences for youthful offenders.

Wilson was later sentenced to 45 years for predatory sexual assault.

Ghrist, now a Bloomington defense lawyer, said Illinois cases should not be affected by the Supreme Court opinion.

“I don’t think it will have any impact,“ said Ghrist. Illinois law “has already carved in a lot of the safeguards that are addressed” in a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring judges to consider the unique attributes of youth.

The new ruling reflects the majority view of the Supreme Court that “they want judges to be able to look individually and have the discretion to see what’s appropriate for each individual defendant,” said Ghrist.

The decision “supported the notion that the U.S. Supreme Court believes a judge’s discretion in sentencing is fundamental, particularly when it comes to delicate aspects, and I think juvenile sentencing is a very delicate aspect of a court’s discretion in the United States, “ said the defense lawyer.

In her strongly worded dissent to the majority ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the decision “twists precedents” in two previous Supreme Court rulings that require judges to decide if the “irreparable corruption” standard applies to the defendant.

“The question is whether the State, at some point, must consider whether a juvenile offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation sufficient to merit a chance at life beyond the prison in which he grew up … For most, the answer is yes,” wrote Sotomayor in her dissent joined by Justice Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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