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New state law eliminates mandatory life sentences for youth offenders

A new state law that eliminates mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders will only bring more pain to the families of victims killed by teens, says an advocacy group opposing the new law.

The Illinois law took effect in January and follows a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made life without parole for minors unconstitutional. Illinois is among a dozen states that have revised their juvenile life sentencing laws.

U.S. Supreme Court, Washington D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that the sentencing changes must be applied retroactively to minors currently serving life without parole.

Illinois, which has 103 juveniles serving life, is among a handful of states that have not written the retroactive statute into law, instead allowing those inmates to seek new sentencing through the lower state courts.

State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), who sponsored Illinois’ revised law, said he feels for the victims and their families, adding that truly violent and irredeemable inmates should never be released. But Harmon said doing away with mandatory life without parole for minors is the right thing to do.

“There is a growing, national bipartisan movement toward being smart on crime,” Harmon said, adding that the legislature worked with both juvenile justice and victims advocates in drafting the bill.

“Looking forward, it is important that we have a system that is fair and constitutional,” Harmon said.

“We have an obligation to be fair. There are some inmates who have turned their lives around since committing their crimes and going to prison, even though they didn’t have any realistic belief that they’ll ever get out.”

State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), a co-sponsor of the bill in the Illinois House, agreed.

“It’s just the right thing to do, to make sure  that everyone has their full rights as citizens, and when you ban someone for life from any opportunity, it’s un-American,” Ford said.

“It’s not just worrying about criminals,” he added, stressing his support for restorative justice efforts to protect victims. “We have to worry about the victims and their families as well. We have to make sure everyone is taken into consideration when decisions like these are made.”

Victims’ advocates, however, say these new laws are a slap in the face to them and their loved ones lost to violent teen killers.

“It’s like a nightmare having to go back and relive that pain all over again,” said Jody Robinson, a co-founder of National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers

Robinson and other victims’ families started the organization in 2008 from her home state of Michigan.

JImmy Cotaling
JImmy Cotaling, who was killed in 1990 by two teenagers in Capac Michigan. PHOTO courtesy National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers.

In 1990, Robinson’s brother was killed by a 16-year-old girl and her 19-year-old boyfriend in Capac, a small rural village in upper west Michigan. Her brother, Jim Cotaling, was 28 years old when the teens tried to steal his car, later stabbing him to death. Robinson said her brother was chosen at random because the teens just wanted to go joy riding. Robinson said the girl, Barbara Hernandez, masterminded the crime. 

Now 42, Hernandez has spent 25 years in a Michigan prison.

Robinson was a senior in high school when her brother was killed. Violent teen killers who knowingly kill others should serve life without parole, Robinson said.

“There are crimes and then there are crimes. These aren’t childish acts. You know what you’re doing at that age,” Robinson said.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that life without parole for juveniles under 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Mandatory life, the court ruled, can still be given but not as the only option, and state courts must consider the age and other mitigating circumstances in sentencing minors, like their brain development and life circumstances at the time the crime was committed.

Robinson said her organization supports prevention and restorative justice efforts for youth. But she said her organization doesn’t support giving violent teen killers a chance to get out as adults. And forcing victim’s families to have to go back and relive their pain in ongoing parole hearings is “cruel and unusual punishment,” Robinson insists.

“My case is 25 years old,” she said. “We will be pulled back in front of either a judge or a jury to relive this nightmare all over again. That is just pure torment.”

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