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The Eighth Amendment & Juveniles in Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court recently handed down a decision regarding juveniles and the Eight Amendment of the United States Constitution.[1] The Eight Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.”[2] “Cruel and unusual punishment” seems to be straight forward but it took multiple landmark cases (state and federal) to explain “cruel and unusual punishment” in regards to sentencing of juveniles.[3] “The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed courts to look beyond history to ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society’ to determine whether a punishment is so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual.”[4]

In the case of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the United States Supreme Court determined that minors under the age of eighteen cannot be sentenced to death because that violated the Eight Amendment.[5] The Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) interpreted, “[t]he Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.”[6] The Supreme Court decided even further in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) that

a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.[7]

Lastly, the Supreme Court of the United States decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016) directly affected the states courts by determining: “when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule.”[8]

The Illinois Supreme Court made landmark decisions regarding the Eight Amendment and juveniles in three major cases. In People v. Davis, 2014 IL 115595 the Illinois Supreme Court decided that “Miller applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.”[9] The Illinois Supreme Court then decided in People v. Reyes, 2016 IL 119271 that “sentencing a juvenile offender to a mandatory term of years that is the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment.”[10] Lastly, in People v. Holman, 2017 IL 120655 the Illinois Supreme Court held that “Miller applies to discretionary sentences of life without parole for juvenile defendants.”[11] Reyes and Holman found to prevail on a claim based on Miller “a defendant sentenced for an offense committed while a juvenile must show that (1) the defendant was subject to a life sentence, mandatory or discretionary, natural or de facto, and (2) the sentencing court failed to consider youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing the sentence.”[12]

All these cases lead us to the recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling in People v. Buffer.[13] In Buffer, the Defendant was a minor when he was convicted of murder and the use of a firearm that caused the death of the victim.[14] This caused the Defendant to be sentenced to a total of 50-years in prison.[15] In June 2012 Miller was decided while the Defendant’s direct appeal was pending.[16] In May 2014, Defendant filed this pro se postconviction petition applying Miller and the circuit court dismissed it.[17] Then in September 2014, the Defendant appealed the dismissal to the appellate court.[18] The following was the decision of the Appellate Court regarding Defendants pro se postconviction petition:

The appellate court reversed the summary dismissal of defendant’s postconviction petition. 2017 IL App (1st) 142931. The appellate court concluded that, (1) pursuant to Reyes, defendant’s 50-year sentence was a mandatory de facto life sentence and (2) the circuit court failed to consider defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing sentence. Therefore, defendant’s sentence violated the eighth amendment. Id. ¶¶ 63-64. The appellate court vacated defendant’s sentence and remanded his case to the circuit court for resentencing under the juvenile sentencing statute (730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105(West 2016)). 2017 IL App (1st) 142931, ¶¶ 67-69.[19]

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the appellate courts outcome but on different grounds.[20] The difference in how the determination of a de facto life sentence for juveniles.[21] The decision of the Illinois Supreme Court in Buffer is extremely significant because the Court determined when a prison term is considered a de facto life sentence without parole for a juvenile.[22]

The Supreme Court first cites the appellate court decisions that rejected Miller claims and found harsh prison terms that were survivable.[23] The Court then makes sure to note the importance of the legislatures decisions on declaring what the penalties for crimes are.[24] After the Miller and Davis decisions the Illinois general assembly enacted a statute that “provid[ed] a new sentencing scheme for defendants under the age of 18 when they committed their offenses.”[25] The following is the Illinois statute in whole which was important to the Courts decision in determining when a juveniles prison sentence is a de facto life sentence.

(a) On or after the effective date of this amendatory Act of the 99th General Assembly [P.A. 99-875], when a person commits an offense and the person is under 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the offense, the court, at the sentencing hearing conducted under Section 5-4-1 [730 ILCS 5/5-4-1], shall consider the following additional factors in mitigation in determining the appropriate sentence:

(1) the person’s age, impetuosity, and level of maturity at the time of the offense, including the ability to consider risks and consequences of behavior, and the presence of cognitive or developmental disability, or both, if any;

(2) whether the person was subjected to outside pressure, including peer pressure, familial pressure, or negative influences;

(3) the person’s family, home environment, educational and social background, including any history of parental neglect, physical abuse, or other childhood trauma;

(4) the person’s potential for rehabilitation or evidence of rehabilitation, or both;

(5) the circumstances of the offense;

(6) the person’s degree of participation and specific role in the offense, including the level of planning by the defendant before the offense;

(7) whether the person was able to meaningfully participate in his or her defense;

(8) the person’s prior juvenile or criminal history; and

(9) any other information the court finds relevant and reliable, including an expression of remorse, if appropriate. However, if the person, on advice of counsel chooses not to make a statement, the court shall not consider a lack of an expression of remorse as an aggravating factor.

(b) Except as provided in subsection (c), the court may sentence the defendant to any disposition authorized for the class of the offense of which he or she was found guilty as described in Article 4.5 of this Code, and may, in its discretion, decline to impose any otherwise applicable sentencing enhancement based upon firearm possession, possession with personal discharge, or possession with personal discharge that proximately causes great bodily harm, permanent disability, permanent disfigurement, or death to another person.

(c) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, if the defendant is convicted of first degree murder and would otherwise be subject to sentencing under clause (iii), (iv), (v), or (vii) of subparagraph (c) of paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of Section 5-8-1 of this Code [730 ILCS 5/5-8-1] based on the category of persons identified therein, the court shall impose a sentence of not less than 40 years of imprisonment. In addition, the court may, in its discretion, decline to impose the sentencing enhancements based upon the possession or use of a firearm during the commission of the offense included in subsection (d) of Section 5-8-1 [730 ILCS 5/5-8-1].[26]

The Court noted that the “the General Assembly has determined that the specified first degree murders that would justify natural life imprisonment for adult offenders would warrant a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years for juvenile offenders.”[27] This minimum of 40-years is the line the Court decided to draw when determining a de facto life sentence for a juvenile.[28] The Court choose this number because of the faith it has in the legislature when making laws and penalties for offenses, the Court made clear to support the legislature and its importance for the welfare of the people.[29]

With the decision made that a prison term of more than 40-years is a de facto life sentence for juveniles, Defendant Buffer’s sentence of 50-years is unconstitutional and violates Defendant’s Eight Amendment right.[30] The Supreme Court remanded the case for resentencing under the new statute.[31]

As one can see, these series of cases lead to a decision here in Illinois that can make a difference in juveniles lives. It is important to realize that juveniles have a better chance of rehabilitation and should have a chance in this crazy world. These series of United States Supreme Court cases and Illinois Supreme Court cases emphasis the importance of not only a constitutional right but also juveniles need for a second chance.

[1] People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327.

[2] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[3] Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012); People v. Davis, 2014 IL 115595; Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016); People v. Reyes, 2016 IL 119271; People v. Holman, 2017 IL 120655; Buffer, 2019 IL 122327.

[4]Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 15 (Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)).

[5] Roper, 543 U.S. at 578.

[6] Graham, 560 U.S. at 82.

[7] Miller, 567 U.S. at 489.

[8] Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 729.

[9] Davis, 2014 IL 115595, ¶ 34.

[10] Reyes, 2016 IL 119271, ¶ 9.

[11] Holman, 2017 IL 120655, ¶ 40.

[12] Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 27; See Holman, 2017 IL 120655, ¶ 40 and Reyes, 2016 IL 119271, ¶ 9.

[13] Buffer, 2019 IL 122327 (The above-mentioned cases are continuously cited throughout the Supreme Courts decision in Buffer).

[14] Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 5.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. ¶ 6.

[17] Id.  ¶ 7.

[18] Id.  ¶ 8; While this appeal was pending, Montgomery and Reyes were both decided.

[19] Id. ¶ 9.

[20] Id. ¶ 1; (Fun fact the Illinois Supreme Court granted The John Marshall Law School’s Pro Bono Program & Clinic, “leave to submit amicus curiae brief in support of the Defendant.” Id. ¶ 10).

[21] Id. ¶ 33-34.

[22] Id. ¶ 29.

[23] Id. ¶ 30; People v. Perez, 2018 IL App (1st) 153629, ¶¶ 37-39 (53-year sentence, release at age 70); People v. Hoy, 2017 IL App (1st) 142596, ¶ 46 (52-year sentence, release at age 68); People v. Evans, 2017 IL App (1st) 143562, ¶¶ 15-18 (90-year sentence, earliest release opportunity at age 62); People v. Applewhite, 2016 Il App (1st) 142330, ¶¶ 14-16 (45-year sentence, release at age 62).

[24]Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 35.

[25] Id. ¶ 36.

[26] 730 ILSC 5/5-4.5-105.

[27] Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 39.

[28] Id. ¶ 40.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. ¶41-42.

[31] Id. ¶47.