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Should people in prison serving life for crimes committed when they were under 21 get another chance? Some Illinois legislators say yes.

Chicago Tribune - 6/27/2023

Antonio House hasn’t known freedom since he was 19, when he was locked up as a suspect in the 1993 kidnappings and killings of two teens on Chicago’s West Side.

While evidence showed House was only a lookout, a judge handed him a sentence of natural life. Destined to die in prison, he was forced to adapt to living without hope of ever again being free. His initial mindset was that he was already dead.

“The first thing you do when you get incarcerated, you start to think … ‘If I was dead, this wouldn’t have happened,’” House, now 48, said in a recent interview in the Cook County Jail. “If you stay in that mind frame, you’ll never exist, you’ll never grow.”

House is among more than 3,000 people in Illinois prisons convicted of crimes committed when they were under 21 and given lengthy sentences, including life in prison without the possibility of parole, also known as natural life, criminal justice reform advocates say. But legislation introduced in the Illinois General Assembly could provide a sliver of light for those behind bars.

The measure would make sentencing reforms that have been passed in recent years retroactive for nearly everyone in prison who was convicted of serious crimes committed when they were teens or young adults. Instituting the reforms would make them eligible for parole at some point, giving House and others in similar situations a chance at being freed.

The bill failed to advance this spring despite the Democratic-controlled legislature’s push in recent years to lower the prison population and enact progressive criminal justice policies. But its backers aren’t giving up.

“There are a lot of individuals who are serving life sentences who probably should not be serving life sentences,” said state Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Democrat from Waukegan who wants to reintroduce the legislation by early next year.

Mayfield pointed to laws that allow people such as House to be convicted of murder even though authorities say they played a peripheral role in the crime, which get “a lot of individuals locked up for life who hadn’t even killed anybody.”

The bill was introduced in the Illinois Senate on Feb. 9 by state Sen. Seth Lewis, a Bartlett Republican. As a state representative, Lewis also worked with Mayfield on a separate bill that has been signed into law abolishing most natural life sentences for those convicted of committing crimes under 21. That law affects only those in prison sentenced on or after June 1, 2019.

But opponents argue making the measure fully retroactive would reopen old wounds for victims and their families who fought hard to seek justice.

“By saying that somebody because of their old age gets a pass, gets a second chance at life when those victims’ family members didn’t get a second chance, it’s a balancing approach,” said Jim Durkin of Western Springs, a former Cook County prosecutor who was House Republican leader for a decade until retiring from the legislature earlier this year. “But I believe that the rights of victims should always come in front and center in these issues and should prevail over these types of situations.”

The retroactive measure would apply to two recent laws. One, which takes effect in January and was based on Mayfield and Lewis’ initial legislation, gives anyone receiving a life sentence for a crime committed when they were under 21 — except for those 18 through 20 convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child — an opportunity to go before the state’s Prisoner Review Board for possible parole after being locked up for 40 years.

The other is a 2019 law that allows people sentenced to lengthy prison terms for most crimes committed when they were under 21 to go up for parole review after serving 10 years. Those convicted of first-degree murder or aggravated criminal sexual assault and not given life sentences would be entitled to parole review after 20 years.

At a Senate committee hearing in March, Lewis acknowledged making those laws retroactive “is not easy.”

“For some it is a no-brainer. For others, it’s a nonstarter,” Lewis said. “But I, as an individual, believe in second chances for youth. And this bill gives that to those currently incarcerated in prison when they were (young).”

Speaking against the bill was Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a victims’ rights advocate whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were slain in their Winnetka home in 1990 by a then-16-year-old who is now serving life in prison.

“Society in general, and victims specifically, have a very substantial interest in the integrity and finality of sentencing,” Bishop-Jenkins said during the March hearing. “So, this proposed legislation on its face is unfair to victims in its retroactivity because it changes the game without even letting them know that you’re doing that.”

Bishop-Jenkins said she’d be willing to work with lawmakers to make changes to the bill if it offered more assurances that victims or their families would be notified that those convicted in their cases were seeking early release. One sticking point in the bill, for instance, was assigning notifications to the Prisoner Review Board, while Bishop-Jenkins argued county courts would be better suited for that task.

Lewis said he’d continue to try to work with Bishop-Jenkins or any other opponents to fine-tune the bill, which passed through the committee with a 7-3 vote. The bill never made it to the Senate floor before the Senate adjourned for the spring on May 25.

“I was willing to try and lead on this issue and during the process discovered that there are many different perspectives on this issue,” Lewis said. “But if Republicans are going to be trusted to lead, we have to lead not only on the easy, but the tough issues for all Illinoisans.”

Illinois provides other pathways for people in prison to seek early release, among them the governor’s clemency process and post-conviction innocence claims. Terminally ill people who are locked up may also be released early. And within the last few years, prosecutors have been allowed to file resentencing petitions to argue further incarceration is unjust, though a recent report by Injustice Watch shows prosecutors haven’t used that new power very often.

In January, a task force composed of lawmakers, retired judges and legal experts issued a report that recommended the legislature create more resentencing opportunities for those in prison that are not only prospective — applying to future crimes — but retroactive.

“A resentencing system that allows both prospective and retroactive application will have the greatest impact on the prison population and address the disparate impact of mass incarceration,” the task force wrote.

Such efforts are not new. In 2016, former Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie introduced legislation that would have allowed defendants given natural life sentences for crimes committed when they were under 25 to file petitions for possible resentencing. The measure, which would have been applied retroactively, went nowhere.

“We thought that if it’s unconstitutional to put you in prison for life without parole because you committed a crime tomorrow, it was just as important to say that you had the opportunity for a resentencing if you did the crime 10 years ago. We said those things are comparable,” Currie, a Chicago Democrat who served in the state legislature from 1979 to 2019, said in a recent interview.

Part of what led to her proposal was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which found that mandatory life sentences in prison without parole for minors violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Subsequent court decisions on the state and federal levels ruled the landmark case could be applied retroactively.

The 2012 ruling acknowledged research showing how minors’ human brains aren’t as fully developed as those of 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 Restore Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, said during the Senate hearing in March. “People who receive extreme sentences as children and youth are uniquely capable of change and, therefore, recidivate at extremely low rates.”

There is, of course, no guarantee older people in prison will stay straight. Steven Hawthorne, sentenced to life in prison at 17 for a double murder, was released in 2017, 33 years later, after being resentenced following the Miller ruling.

He volunteered at a legal clinic and acted as a big brother figure for incarcerated men. But more recently he was arrested twice for illegal firearms possession and, in April, he was charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

Fred Weatherspoon, House’s childhood friend and a co-defendant in his case, was resentenced under Miller. He was released a few years ago and now mentors at-risk youths on Chicago’s South Side.

Weatherspoon was able to seek early release under Miller because he was 17 at the time of the crimes, two years younger than House who was no longer a minor.

“The fact that he was 19 and I was 17 is the only reason that I’m here,” Weatherspoon, 46, said in April in his office in the New City community. “It’s the craziest thing that I would get released on that and he’s not. … Because there was no tangible difference between us.”

House was sentenced to life for the September 1993 kidnappings and killings of 15-year-old Stanton Burch and 18-year-old Michael Purham on Chicago’s West Side. Authorities said their deaths stemmed from a drug-turf dispute and a feud between Willie Lloyd, the late flamboyant leader of the Vice Lords, and another leader of the same gang.

House’s case has been under litigation for years.

He’s made claims of innocence, pointing to a witness who recanted her testimony against him years after telling authorities that House participated in the killings. House, who declined to discuss his case at the request of his attorneys, also has accused former Chicago police Detective Kriston Kato of allowing Lloyd to threaten him while he was in custody for the killings.

Kato has come under scrutiny over the years for allegations from defendants that he beat or intimidated them during police questioning.

Growing up in his tough West Side neighborhood, House bounced between schools and got into fights. He said his mother had drug problems, and his stepfather was rarely around and also dabbled in drugs.

“I lost a lot. My mother raised me not to be a fighter. So I used to get beat up a lot,” recalled House, who was transferred from prison to the Cook County Jail while his case continues through litigation. “I never, after 6, 7, 8 years old, I had no male role model.”

In prison, he said officials didn’t push for people serving natural-life sentences to get an education because they saw no sense in rehabilitating someone who would never see freedom. But he said he read certain books to educate himself, including self-help books, and, about 10 years ago, got his GED while inside Stateville Correctional Center.

Michael Purham’s mother, Stephanie Gwin-Harris, said in an interview with the Tribune in May that House should remain in prison unless he’s proved innocent. But later in the same interview, she acknowledged uncertainty over what purpose was served by keeping him in prison for the rest of his life.

“When you’re a kid, you think a certain way. I’m in my 60s now. I don’t think like I thought at 20,” Gwin-Harris said. “And so him, he was 19. I don’t know what happened to him after that.”

“I don’t know. If he gets out, I’m glad he served some time than have not served none at all,” she said.

Gwin-Harris said the last time she talked to her son was when the family was preparing for a funeral.

“I know you’re going to miss me because when I die, everybody’s going to be crying because I’m going out with a bang. I’m going to hit the news,” Gwin-Harris remembered her son telling a family member. Gwin-Harris said everyone laughed it off and thought he was acting silly.

Over the years, she’s learned to not harbor any hatred toward those convicted of killing her son. But the idea of some being out of prison still bothers her.

“It would be like, some people can get away and do whatever they want to do and just take other people’s lives away and be able to live a productive life where my son did not. He was only 18,” Gwin-Harris said.

House, meanwhile, can only wait. Something he’s been doing for nearly 30 years.

“People need to understand that whether you’re innocent or guilty of anything, we’re still human beings. We’re not nothing you throw away. We’re not nothing that you toss along the side,” he said. “This is not rehabilitating us. This is not correcting us. … It’s not helping anyone. You’re destroying two families.”

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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