By Joshua Sohn and the Rev. David Kelly
America stands alone among industrialized nations in telling children as young as 13 that they are beyond hope or redemption. More countries around the world impose sentences of caning, amputation or stoning than impose juvenile life without parole or “JLWOP.” It is intellectually, legally and theologically wrong to punish adolescents for their emotional and psychological immaturity in a manner that denies them the opportunity to grow up and to discover their potential.
To understand this, look no further than Adolfo Davis, who grew up in Washington Park and joined a gang as an adolescent in search of the support and stability that he lacked at home. On the night of Oct. 9, 1990, two months after his 14th birthday, he accompanied two older gang members on what he thought would be a robbery, but instead was a double homicide. Adolfo, who did not shoot anyone, was tried as an adult and convicted under an accountability theory that did not require the prosecution to prove he killed anyone.
He received a mandatory JLWOP sentence and will spend the rest of his life in prison unless Gov. Pat Quinn grants his petition for clemency.
JLWOP is inconsistent with the principles of fairness and proportionality. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution requires that criminal sentences be proportionate to the underlying offenses and reflect “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Ironically, in 1899, Illinois was the first state to create a juvenile justice system, recognizing that kids should be treated differently by courts. This principle has been lost.
JLWOP sentences deny juveniles the potential to grow, develop and be rehabilitated. The theological foundations of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and many other religions recognize that a just punishment allows the offender to be rehabilitated and restored to the community whenever possible.
The United Catholic Bishops wrote that “we cannot tolerate behavior that threatens lives and violates the rights of other. We believe in responsibility, accountability and legitimate punishment.” They go on to say, however, that as a society we do not “give up on those who violate the laws. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God.”
Both the Supreme Court of Illinois and the U.S. Supreme Court have abolished mandatory JLWOP sentences, but only for certain juveniles.
Illinois’ Supreme Court rejected a JLWOP sentence in People vs. Miller, explaining that a “life sentence without the possibility of parole implies that under any circumstances a juvenile defendant convicted solely by accountability is incorrigible and incapable of rehabilitation for the rest of his life.”
Similarly, in deciding that JLWOP is unconstitutional for non-homicide offenders, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Graham vs. Florida, found that juvenile offenders who did not kill or intend to kill have “diminished moral culpability” and must be provided the opportunity to prove that they are deserving of release: “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
Adolfo has grown into a man who contributes to the betterment of society. He has accepted responsibility for his actions, he has reached out to others with similar backgrounds to help them avoid his fate and he has waited for our legal system to confirm that his is a life worth saving.
Despite Adolfo’s tremendous personal growth, he is not the poster child for the rehabilitative ideal that gave birth to the juvenile justice system more than 100 years ago. He is the poster child for its failure.
Joshua Sohn is a partner at DLA Piper and one of Adolfo’s pro bono attorneys, and the Rev. David Kelly is director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago.