Are Natural Life Sentences Being Applied In The Way They Were Meant to Be?
By Oscar Parham ~ a.k.a Smiley
Here is a fun fact that society may not know: the state of Illinois claims to focus its system on rehabilitation rather than retribution. However, the rampant over-sentencing and gross misuse of life sentences tell a very different story.
The overuse of life sentences in the state of Illinois is a sad reality that needs to be addressed. But many politicians are reluctant to address it for fear of the dreaded label “soft on crime.” But is showing mercy being soft on crime?
An 18-year-old kid is convicted under the theory of accountability. Accountability means to aid, abet, or facilitate the commission of a crime. It says that the person who is the look-out man is just as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger, even if the lookout man didn’t know if the person was going to pull the trigger.
But concerning this 18-year-old kid: he had no gun. He wasn’t present during the shootings, and he had a minimal criminal record with no history of violence. This 18-year-old kid was sentenced to a mandatory natural life sentence – the same amount of time that would have been given to a serial killer if he were sentenced under the present Illinois sentence statute.
With this in mind, I would like to ask the question: “Are natural life sentences being applied the way they were meant to be?” In order to answer this question, we have to consider for whom natural life sentences were meant. For an observation of this question, consider words of former democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
During a democratic town hall meeting in Ohio, an African American man who had been wrongfully imprisoned and released after 38 years on death row, asked Clinton if she would continue in her stance for the death penalty, seeing that it is a flawed system. While he answer was mostly vague, the good that came from her response was a clear definition of the type of people she had in mind when she voted for the death penalty bill.
According to Clinton, the death penalty was meant for the worst of the worst: John Wayne Gacy or the Oklahoma City Bomber. These are the types of people that Clinton considered a serious threat to society.
The late Barton Leisure, professor emeritus of philosophy at Pace University, wrote a paper on the death penalty called “The Death Penalty is Permissible.” In his paper, he quotes Justice Potter Steward in his majority opinion in Gregg v. Georgia saying: Capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme cases as the community’s belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous that the only adequate response is the death penalty.
Maybe this is what Clinton had in mind when she voted for the death penalty bill, or maybe she had in mind what Lord Justice Denning told the British Commission from the same paper; “some crimes are so outrageous that society insists on capital punishment because the wrongdoer deserves it irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not.”
In either case, from these quotes, we have an understanding that the death penalty was meant not only for the most outrageous crimes, but also for those people who are considered the worst of the worst.
Mainly due to incidents like the Ohio incident mentioned earlier, in 2003, Governor Ryan commuted all death row prisoners to natural life sentences. It was officially abolished through legislation in 2011. With the abolition of the death penalty, the harshest form of punishment in Illinois became mandatory natural life sentences.
Since we now know that the death penalty was meant for the worst of the worst, and natural life sentences are an alternative to the death penalty; how is it that natural life sentences have become commonly applied to accountability cases, juveniles, and young adults (those ages 18-25 who recent brain science shows have the greatest capacity for rehabilitation).
If a study were done, I would estimate that at least 60% of the people who have life sentences in Illinois would not be considered the worst of the worst. Many were convicted under the theory of accountability. Some just simply made mistakes. And others were young and convicted under the theory of accountability.
For example, take my situation: I am the 18-year-old kid convicted under the theory of accountability that I mentioned earlier. With that being said, there is no question about the seriousness of my case. But the argument made by the Supreme Court in Miller V. Alabama can also be made in my case. In Miller, the court stated: “we agree with defendant that a mandatory sentence of natural life with no possibility of parole grossly distorts that factual realities of the case and does not represent defendant’s culpability such that it shocks the moral sense of community.”
I was offered an eleven-year plea agreement at 50% without having to testify for the state against any of my co-defendants. Based on my level of involvement in the case and because I was an 18-year-old kid with no history of violence, the state felt that eleven years was a sufficient sentence. This says that I was not considered by the state to be beyond rehabilitation, irredeemable, nor the worst of the worst. In fact, they felt that in 5 ½ years, I would be fit to rejoin society. When I didn’t take the deal and was eventually found guilty, I was sentenced to mandatory natural life in prison.
What changed? How was this leap from 5 ½ years to forever justified and rationalized? OR as a wise man once asked, how is it that I was considered rehabilitatable after 5 ½ years, but when I don’t take the deal, now I’m beyond rehabilitation. Moreover, Is as just a kid who needed time to grow up and reflect as the eleven-year plea suggested? Or was I a monster who threatened the very fabric of society like the natural life sentence suggests? According to the state, one day I was the former, the next day I was the latter. If I had taken the plea agreement, I would have been home in 1995.
In the 28 years of my incarceration, I have had minimal record of infractions with no history of violence, much like my pre-prison record. So which is the better indicator of who I am: the conviction under accountability theory, or the 48 years of minimal trouble with non-violence? Do I sound like somebody who should be labeled as the worst of the worst?
Sadly, natural life sentences are not being applied the way they were meant to be applied, but with a new approach, an openness to change and a bit of creativity, things can be different.
In closing, making sure that natural life sentences are applied correctly does not mean just letting all prisoners go free and ignoring responsibility for crime. It’s about cutting in place a fair system so that true justice can prevail. Just as prisoners must change and reform, so must the system.