SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Feb. 13, 2008 (AP): Illinois law that allows youth offenders to be sentenced to life without parole most often affects black and Latino minors, a new study suggests.
The Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children found the state has 103 youth offenders serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Of them, 72 are black and 10 are Latino.
In a report released Wednesday, the coalition is urging officials to require the possibility of parole when minors receive life sentences and to make it retroactive, so that it would apply to youths already behind bars.
``Each of these people deserve an opportunity to be heard again before they die ... and have a board review their sentence to determine, in fact, if they do deserve to be serving a life sentence,'' said Simmie Baer, an assistant professor at Northwestern Law School who interviewed some of the inmates for the report.
Baer said class, more than race, determines who ends up in prison for life.
``I think poverty is a major issue,'' she said. ``Poverty affects children's and adolescents' lives in many ways.''
The recommendations brought sharp disagreement from at least one relative of a murder victim.
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins' pregnant sister, Nancy, and brother-in-law were murdered in their Winnetka home in 1990 by a 16-year-old, who was sentenced to life without parole.
She said that penalty is reserved for the most horrible offenses—crimes that would get even more severe punishment under other circumstances.
``These are cases, in every single one of them, if they were a few months or a year older, they would gotten the death penalty,'' Bishop-Jenkins said, while adding that parole reviews might be appropriate in a few cases.
The report comes as legislation has been introduced in the Illinois House to give youths serving life without parole an opportunity to have their cases reviewed after 10 years.
Although she doubts the law will be changed, Bishop-Jenkins worries about the prospect of her family having to attend parole hearings for the rest of their lives to keep her sister's killer behind bars. She also expressed dismay that the coalition released its study without discussing it with her or other victims' relatives.
Illinois ranks sixth in the nation in youths serving life without parole, trailing California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to Baer.
American courts traditionally had been more lenient on juvenile offenders but that changed in the late 1980s with growing alarm over violent youth crime. State legislators responded by introducing stiffer laws and requiring youths accused of first-degree murder to be tried as adults.
Now, nearly 2,400 people are serving life without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes committed as minors.
The coalition argues that should be changed because children are fundamentally different from adults, pointing to recent research indicating adolescent brains have not fully developed and are ``more likely to engage in behavior without evaluating consequences.''
The group adds that younger minds also are more susceptible to rehabilitation.
Sharod Gordon, director of an anti-violence program in Chicago, worked with the coalition to review its findings. He would like the state to invest more in rehabilitation with substance abuse treatment, anger management courses and counseling outside of the facility.
``That way, kids can get the opportunity to make a change in their mental behavior,'' Gordon said.