Excise Life Without Parole

Argument in favor of: 1a) Life without parole shall be excised from the possible sentences that can be given in Illinois.

Article I Section XI of our Illinois State Constitution instructs thus:

“All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense
and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.”

This is the “rehabilitation clause” of our state constitution of 1970.

Through this clause, the framers of our constitution acknowledged that human beings are redeemable.  Given this inherent quality, and this constitutional mandate, every person must be offered the opportunity to prove their readiness to reintegrate back into society.

Despite this, the state of Illinois has enacted laws across the past 40 years that prevent the execution of this constitutional guarantee. Through enacting mandatory natural life provisions and abolishing our paroling system, the safeguards that ought to issue forth from Article I Section XI have become an empty promise, and thousands are languishing in prison as a result.

You don’t believe me?  Consider the following and then tell me what you think…

… Meet Oscar Parham who, at the age of eighteen was charged under a theory of accountability with two counts of first degree murder.  The evidence revealed that Parham’s involvement in the offenses amounted to him not actually knowing what the killer was intending to do. Thus, prior to the trial the state tenured Mr. Parham an unconditional 11-year sentence, of which he was to serve half in prison.  Parham refused the offer, confident in his innocence.  He was tried, convicted for the actions of someone more than twice his age, and sentenced to natural life in prison. That was in 1989, a full 29 years ago. In that time, Mr. Parham has been a model prisoner. He’s completed several educational courses, has held numerous work assignments, and has maintained a spotless disciplinary record. How, then, was Mr. Parham sentenced to life imprisonment after being offered an 11-year plea? And why in the world does he remain incarcerated after 29 years, though he seemingly poses zero risk to society?

The reason is the mandatory natural life sentencing statute that did not allow Mr. Parham’s judge to consider any mitigating factors, neither was he allowed to tailor the sentence with the objective of restoring Mr. Parham to useful citizenship, as articulated by Article I Section XI. On top of that, Illinois’ parole board had been abolished in 1978, leaving him with no hope for relief from his sentence at the other end of the criminal justice system. Mr. Parham’s case underscores the need to both abolish mandatory natural life sentencing laws, and restore the Illinois parole board.

~ ~ ~

The heart of Article I Section XI is rehabilitation. It is a recognition of the redeemable qualities that people possess which, over a period of time, may come into full bloom. Because of this, the bill’s architect, Leon Foster, in articulating the ultimate purpose of the rehabilitation clause stated: “in addition to looking to the act that the person committed, we also look at the person who committed the act and determine to what extent he can be restored to useful citizenship.”

While the purpose of Article I Section XI was clear and both its intent and spirit, the General Assembly saw fit to enact a measure that would undermine those core principles through Senate Bill (SB) 32, passed in 1979. The discussions that took place on the Senate floor are proof positive.  SB 32, presented by Representative McAuliffe:

“This is a good bill, we have people like John Wayne Gacey and Richard Speck. This          would             ensure that they spend the rest of their natural lives in the penitentiary if they     haven’t been sentenced to the death penalty.”

Representative Cullerton in opposition said, “Thank you Mr. Speaker and ladies and         gentlemen of the house. This is unquestionably the dumbest bill that has ever gotten out of the judiciary committee. This is absolutely unneeded and I would remind       Representative McAuliffe or anybody else that speaks about these bills that it is really,        really trying to direct itself at one person, but is so broad that it will apply to anybody         who definitely does not need to be given a life imprisonment, and for that reason I ask             for you to vote no.”

These were the words spoken both in support and opposition of SB 32, a bill designed to eliminate the judge’s ability to exercise judicial discretion at sentencing. This bill effectively legislated Illinois citizens out of the very constitution put in place to protect them. Stated differently, SB 32 rendered Article I Section XI’s constitutional guarantees a complete nullity.

Under SB 32, judges are all but forced to impose a statutorily mandated sentence of natural life imprisonment if the death penalty was not imposed, irrespective of redeemable qualities that would warrant any future release. Factors such as a person’s age at the time of the offense, age-related characteristics, their social environment, and even their diminished culpability in the crime itself.

The distinction here is that our Constitution allows this evidence to be received and weighed in consideration of a person’s future restoration to society.  But in practice, thanks to SB 32, such redeemable factors are given no weight and any future opportunity for restoration is categorically barred. The outcome of this is unspeakable carnage wherein those with diminished culpability, those who unintendedly killed someone, those who possessed no impetus to kill, and those who simply made a terrible mistake have all been scooped into the dragnet of SB 32.  They have all become victims of a bill that was intended for serial murderers.

We find that every person appearing before the court entangled in SB 32’s broad web is automatically lumped into one basket to be penalized with the same lifetime of condemnation.  Thus, a person who massacred four children and a person who was a look-out in a robbery-turned-murder both receive the same exact penalty of life without parole. We hope you see that this is not just.

Moreover, this is in direct conflict with our criminal law jurisprudence.  Our federal government acknowledged and fixed this when it repealed several mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses that resulted in thousands of de facto life sentences.

Our criminal law corpus from its inception has always vested our judiciary with a level of discretion and latitude – at least at the sentencing phase – to weigh mitigating evidence relevant to the imposition of a given sentence – especially the ability to differentiate between crimes and levels of culpability on a case-by-case basis. Because SB 32 prohibits this form of judicial oversight, thousands have suffered undeservingly.  This is the very basis on which Representative Cullerton rested his objection.

Consider the case of 15-year-old Terril Williams who in 1997 was charged alongside his co-defendant with first-degree murder. The record evidence revealed that Williams was no more than a look-out, and his participation was deemed minimal. Although Williams was not the actual murderer he, like Mr. Parham, was nevertheless held legally accountable for someone yearly twice his age and sentenced to a lifetime behind bars under SB 32’s mandatory provision. 20 years have since passed and Mr. Williams is still incarcerated.

The facts of this case alone raise very serious concerns over the propriety of natural life sentencing. Can there be any rationale for a 15-year-old acting as a look-out to be subjected to a lifetime behind bars with absolutely no opportunity for any future release, not even through a paroling system? The same question is true for others similarly affected.

After a second’s pause, what then do we say about 16-year-olds with diminished culpability? Or even 17 and 18-year-olds who are not even at the scene when the crime was being carried out? Or what about those 19, 20 and 21-year-olds whose crimes were accidental? Or those 22 to 25-year-olds whose crimes were unintentional and whose brains were still intellectually developing?  These are just some of the categories of people who have been caught up in the carnage of SB 32.

Even more disheartening is that, as Mr. Williams and thousands of others are condemned to lifetime imprisonment, the statement is made that every single one of them possesses zero redeemable qualities and at no point during their lifetimes do they have any hope to change.

Notably, the majority of those sentenced to mandatory life sentences under SB 32 are under the age of 25 and have lived less than a third of an average lifespan.

Fortunately, the process of gradually maturing and developing morally naturally occurs throughout the span of a person’s lifetime. Life is an ongoing process of organic, refining experiences – not the static state of being as postulated by those who have made attempts to rationalize SB 32. The majority of defendants like Mr. Williams have since evolved into useful citizens and have brought themselves to a point where they could be valuable to our society. Hence, any predetermination at a person’s sentencing that an individual is not redeemable is not only pessimistic, but empirically untrue.

From another perspective, recent scientific research in the field of neurobiology and developmental psychology indicates that our brains do not fully developed until at least the age of 25 and those under 25 or more likely to act on impulse, engage in risky behavior, take ill-considered actions and misread social cues and emotions.  Similarly, as people get older, they statistically become less dangerous.  People simply age out of crime. This is an extremely important body of scientific evidence. What it says is this: people can change, they are redeemable and the majority of people do change.  Very few people would today consider themselves to be the same person that they were twenty years ago.

So how, then, in light of the growing body of modern scientific facts, are we as a society comfortable with the contours of a primitive, non-scientific a bill that forever condemns intellectually developing human beings into mandatory life sentence with no possibility for parole?

Lastly, didn’t the architects of Article I Section XI instruct Congress and, as an extension, judges to “look at the person who committed the act to determine to what extent he could be restored to useful citizenship”? This must include recognizing the ways one may have been influenced into criminal behavior.

This begs us to consider the role environmental factors and forces play in influencing criminal behavior. This analysis is critical to our inquiry, especially as it relates to African-Americans like Mr. Williams, who hail from our country’s most impoverished communities.

Studies have concluded that the unprecedented high rates of unemployment, poor education, broken family structures, and the proliferation of drugs, gangs, and guns that riddle these high-poverty communities, contribute largely to the historical outgrowth of criminal activity and behavior exhibited by African-Americans and Latinos, who make up the overwhelming majority of our country’s prison population.

While this evidence does not excuse criminal behavior and activity, per se, it does provide valuable insight into the underlying factors that lead to criminal activity.

At the end of the day, we are left to conclude the same exact thing that our constitutional founders did: that any sentence that presumptively forecloses consideration of innate, redeemable qualities or any opportunity to one day be restored back to useful citizenship, is unconstitutional and wholly irrational.

Our constitutional framers had it right.  Now we must do the same. People like Oscar Parham, Terril Williams, and thousands of others are depending on us.

~ Written by Eugene Ross (aka Al Ameen)
Al Ameen was incarcerated at age 20 in 1997 and he is currently ineligible for parole.

Back o Proposal