By Carson Griffis
Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP
The Illinois Supreme Court held yesterday that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to prison for more than 40 years. The decision, People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, was authored by Justice Neville and was joined by all members of the court except for Justice Burke, who wrote a special concurrence.
The court held that a sentence of more than 40 years in prison amounts to a de facto life sentence that violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Id. ¶ 41. Relying on a trio of U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 459 (2010); and Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012)), the Court emphasized that juvenile sentences must take into account a minor’s capacity for rehabilitation and diminished culpability. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 17. An overly long sentence, although not strictly a life sentence, does not consider these factors or give juvenile offenders an opportunity to rehabilitate. Id. ¶ 26.
The Court also emphasized the need to draw a clear line for courts and parties to follow in future cases. Id. ¶ 29. The Court looked to sentencing statutes and noted that the legislature had prescribed a minimum sentence of 40 years for juveniles who had committed the same category of first-degree murder that would subject an adult offender to mandatory life imprisonment. Id. ¶¶ 37-39. Because this statute had been passed after Miller, the Court reasoned that the legislature must have viewed a 40-year sentence as compliant with Miller. Id. ¶ 39. Noting that the legislature is the body best suited to fashion criminal penalties, the Court "[e]xtrapolat[ed]" a line of 40 years from this statute. Id. ¶ 41. The Court also found that a 40-year sentence offered some opportunity for juvenile offenders to rehabilitate. Id. ¶ 40. Thus, any sentences of 40 years or less do not violate the Eighth Amendment. Id. ¶ 41.
In her special concurrence, Justice Burke agreed that some sentences may constitute de facto life sentences that violate the Eighth Amendment. Id. ¶ 55 (Burke, J., specially concurring). But she disagreed with the majority’s approach of looking to sentencing statutes because “[i]t is [the] court’s responsibility to decide whether the legislature’s sentencing scheme is constitutional, not the other way around.” Id. ¶ 63. Rather than looking to sentencing statutes, Justice Burke would determine whether a juvenile’s sentence is a de factolife sentence by asking whether the juvenile’s age at the earliest projected time of release exceeds an incarcerated minor’s average life expectancy. Id. ¶ 65. After reviewing statistics on life expectancy, and factoring in the diminished life expectancy of incarcerated individuals, Justice Burke would find that any sentence that would result in a minor being released from prison when he or she is 55 years old or older is a de facto life sentence. Id. ¶¶ 66-67.