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Illinois Supreme Court Outlaws “De Facto” Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

Young offender covering ears

The eighth amendment to the United States Constitution protects people against cruel and unusual punishment. Courts’ views on the Eighth Amendment have evolved over the years, leading to prohibitions on things like the death penalty or mandatory life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued a landmark decision expanding the excessive punishment doctrine to a new class of sentence. Continue reading for details about the case, and contact a dedicated Chicago criminal defense lawyer with any questions.

Court holds 50-year sentence is an unconstitutional “de facto” life sentence

The case of People v. Buffer involves a defendant who was 16 when he shot and killed someone. He was convicted of first-degree murder and discharging a firearm in connection with the murder, for which he was sentenced to a combined 50 years: 25 years for the murder and 25 years for the mandatory firearm add-on under Illinois law.

After his conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for minors. The Supreme Court required that trial judges consider factors relating to the features of youth including poor decision-making and a lack of understanding of long-term consequences. This follows prior Supreme Court precedent outlawing the death penalty for minors.

The defendant, Buffer, filed a petition for post-conviction relief based on the U.S. Supreme Court case and other related precedent. The trial court dismissed his petition, but the appellate court reversed the dismissal and held that the sentence, imposed without consideration of his youth and its attendant characteristics, violated the defendant’s eighth amendment rights. The Illinois Supreme Court took up the state’s appeal.

The Illinois Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision overturning the sentence. The Court determined that any sentence exceeding 40 years constitutes a de facto life sentence, which is unconstitutional for juveniles. The state also failed to take into account the defendant’s youth, as discussed by the appellate court, also in violation of his eighth amendment rights. The ruling could affect as many as 44 cases currently pending before the Illinois Supreme Court involving defendants who committed crimes as juveniles and were sentenced to between 43 and 78 years in prison, and as many as 160 Illinois juvenile offenders who were serving more than 50 years in prison as of last year.

Experienced Illinois Criminal Defense Attorneys in Chicago and Carol Stream

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges in Illinois, protect your future and your family by seeking representation from skilled, dedicated, and compassionate Chicagoland criminal defense lawyers. Contact the Carol Stream offices of Johnson, Westra, Broecker, Whittaker & Newitt for a consultation on your case at 630-665-9600.

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