High court jams automatic triggers for juveniles

The news: In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that incarcerating a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional if the sentence was triggered automatically by the category of the crime.

Behind the news: In Illinois, 100 people are now serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger, according to the Illinois Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Children. About 80 percent of them triggered an automatic sentence by statute—usually due to a crime involving a homicide with multiple victims.

African Americans make up 71 out of the 100 people, while their white, Latino and Native-American counterparts constitute the rest.
Under the Illinois law, juveniles as young as 13 can be transferred to adult court on a discretionary basis and face a life sentence without parole. Those facing felony charges and who are 15 or older may also be automatically transferred to adult court.

Shobha Lakshmi Mahadev, the project director for the Illinois Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Children, said that the disproportionate number of minority juveniles who face a life sentence without parole is a warning sign that there is something wrong with the system.

“We are missing a key and important fact when we sentence them automatically,” Mahadev said, pointing out that the court cannot take into account the backgrounds of the youths in automatic sentencing.

Michael Harris, senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, said that even though the U.S. Supreme Court decision is a step forward, he believes that all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles should be ruled unconstitutional.

“I think it continues a trend of enlightenment of how juveniles should be treated different than adults,” he said. “I had hoped and I still hope [the court] will go the full distance and will make it unconstitutional for all youths under 18.”

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