GOP bill offers teens serving long prison terms a second chance

Newspapers and broadcasts teem with stories about teens and young adults committing crimes – many of them horrible and violent. Justice demands a fair trial, and if juries convict, then the appropriate sentence must be meted out. If the crime is heinous enough to warrant a longer sentence, so be it.

But we all know that teens and young adults are prone to making rash, irrational choices. There has to be a balance between a punishment that fits the crime and a sentence that takes into account a young person’s immaturity. Are there times when circumstances surrounding a young person’s crime warrant a second chance, an opportunity for an inmate to make a case for an earlier release?

State Sen. Seth Lewis, R-Bartlett, thinks that, indeed, second chances have their place in Illinois’ justice system.

Legislation introduced by Lewis builds on previous sentencing reforms that abolished natural life sentences for people convicted of first-degree murder while they were younger than 21, if their sentences were handed down on or after June 1, 2019. They would be allowed to seek parole after serving 40 years or more. Any convict who committed first-degree murder before the age of 21 but received a sentence less than natural life could seek parole after serving 20 years. And any convict who was younger than 21 when they committed crimes other than first-degree murder would be eligible for parole after serving 10 years.

Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law those reforms, some of which had been proposed by Lewis and his House colleague Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan. Lewis’ new proposal would make that previous legislation retroactive to anyone who was younger than 21 during the commission of the crimes and sentenced before June 1, 2019.

Second chances inherently carry risk. Someone guilty of a crime who gets a second chance may embrace the right path moving forward, or may sink back into old habits. The rights and feelings of victims must be weighed, too. So must the safety of the broader community. Society must decide whether the risk is worth it, whether redemption is possible.

But the value of Lewis’ legislation is its specific focus on teens and young adults, whose brains still are developing. That has to be taken into account as the justice system assesses inmates’ potential to relapse into criminal behavior as older adults. “Many people convicted of crimes as children and young adults will age out of crime and not commit crimes later in life,” the Rev. Lindsey Hammond, policy director for a criminal justice reform advocacy group called Restore Justice, told a state Senate hearing in March.

Just as important in that calculus is the environment in which those teens and young adults grew up. We made our advocacy for second chance legislation clear in a 2017 editorial when we wrote:

“A second chance can be a lifeline, especially on South and West side streets where many youths feel they have no chance at all – particularly after an early brush with the law. For so many teens and young adults, the decks appear to be stacked skyscraper-high against them. Broken families; gunfire as commonplace as honking horns; underfunded, underperforming schools; the toxic ubiquity of drugs and gangs – all factors that conspire against a youth’s bid for a better life.”

Lewis’ legislation does not mean more avoidance of jail time, let alone of prosecution itself. Even a 10-year sentence before parole eligibility means many lost years behind bars, in the prime of a young convict’s life, as payment to society for the crime. But the bill offers a sense of hope that there still will be time to pursue a different path, as the wisdom of older years approaches.

Lewis’ bill did not advance during the spring legislative session, but it’s not dead yet, and state lawmakers should give it a much closer look when the General Assembly reconvenes. He still needs to fine-tune the bill to allay concerns from victims’ rights groups, who justifiably want assurances that victims or their relatives will be made aware when an inmate involved in their case is seeking early release.

That’s not a big ask from victims’ rights advocates, and Lewis should make those changes to his bill. Then, when this legislation returns to the General Assembly for consideration, lawmakers should send it to Pritzker for his signature. Justice, after all, isn’t only about meting out punishment – it must embrace rehabilitation.

Inherent in that rehabilitation is the prospect of a second chance. We know many examples of errant young lives not only that were turned around in later years, but were then put in service of helping other young people avoid a self-destructive path.

– Chicago Tribune