De Facto Life Sentence Without Parole Violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment

The Illinois Supreme Court has held that sentencing a juvenile to a prison sentence of greater than 40 years violates his or her Eighth Amendment rights because it imposes a de facto life sentence.

The defendant in this case was a juvenile at the time of the offense. The juvenile was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and discharging a firearm, which caused the victim’s death. The trial court merged the first-degree murder counts and sentenced the juvenile defendant to 25 years on the first-degree murder charges and 25 years for the mandatory firearm add-on.

The juvenile filed a pro se petition for post conviction relief, alleging that the sentence was unconstitutional and violated the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which stated that imposing a mandatory life sentence on a juvenile without consideration of the defendant’s youth and attendant characteristics violated the Eighth Amendment because it constituted a de facto life sentence that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The trial court dismissed the petition as frivolous and patently without merit, but the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the dismissal based on the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling in People v. Reyes, which barred mandatory natural life sentences and de facto life sentences.

The appellate court likewise held that the 50-year sentence (two 25-year sentences) was a mandatory de facto life sentence and that the circuit court failed to consider the defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing the sentence.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court. The Supreme Court reiterated the premise that children are constitutionally different from adults for the purpose of sentencing and, therefore, when sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, the sentencing judge must take into consideration how children are different and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to life in prison.

For a defendant to successfully argue and win a claim based on Miller, the defendant must show that he or she was subject to either a mandatory or discretionary, natural or de facto life sentence.

The sentencing court here chose not to consider youth and its attendant characteristics when imposing the sentence to this defendant. The Illinois Supreme Court determined that a prison sentence of 40 years or less provides an opportunity for release based on the defendant demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation.

Accordingly, imposing the mandated minimum of 45 years, of which the defendant received 50 years, constitutes a de facto life sentence in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment.

For those reasons, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the Illinois Appellate Court in reversing the sentencing of this juvenile.

People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois jury trials, commercial litigation and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including River Grove, Elmwood Park, Stickney, Summit, Western Springs, Addison, Lake Zurich, Park Ridge, Glenview, Northbrook, Winnetka, Wilmette, Skokie, Lincolnshire, Chicago (West Rogers Park, Edgewater, Ravenswood, Uptown, Wicker Park, Irving Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, West Town, Little Italy, North Lawndale, Little Village), Cicero, LaGrange, Barrington, South Holland and Burbank, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.  Mr. Kreisman has been actively engaged in coordinating efforts with similar, like-minded organizations in advocating for broad-based criminal justice reform and juvenile justice reform in Chicago, Cook County, the State of Illinois and the United States.

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