People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327 (April). Episode 625 (Duration 8:41)
Illinois Supreme Court says anything over 40 years is a de facto life sentence.Subscribe: Apple | Google | Spotify | Android | RSS | Direct Download
A jury found defendant guilty of four counts of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1), (a)(2)), and specifically found that defendant personally discharged a firearm that caused the victim’s death.
Defendant was sentenced in July 2010. At that time, Illinois law prescribed a sentencing range of 20 to 60 years for first degree murder (730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-20(a)), and mandated a minimum 25-year additional prison term for personally discharging a firearm that caused the victim’s death (id. § 5-8-1(a)(1)(d)(iii)).
The court sentenced defendant to 25 years on the first degree murder conviction and 25 years for the mandatory firearm add-on, for an aggregate sentence of 50 years.
On a postconviction petition, relying on Miller, defendant argued that his 50-year sentence, imposed for a crime committed when he was a juvenile, violated the eighth amendment because it constituted a de facto life sentence.
Before this court, the State urges us to decide when a prison sentence for a term of years imposed on a juvenile defendant is the functional equivalent of life without parole.
We choose to determine when a juvenile defendant’s prison term is long enough to be considered a de facto life sentence without parole.
The appellate court concluded that,
(1) Pursuant to Reyes, defendant’s 50-year sentence was a mandatory de facto life sentence and
(2) The circuit court failed to consider defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing sentence.
Therefore, defendant’s sentence violated the eighth amendment.
The appellate court vacated defendant’s sentence and remanded his case to the circuit court for resentencing under the juvenile sentencing statute (730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105). This case comes before us in the context of a postconviction proceeding.
Youthful Offender Rules Apply To Cases In Collateral Review
This court held that Miller applied retroactively to cases on collateral review. Davis, 2014 IL 115595, ¶¶ 39, 42. The United States Supreme Court subsequently held likewise, concluding that Miller was a substantive constitutional rule that applied retroactively. Montgomery, 577 U.S. at ___, 136 S. Ct. at 736.
Miller thereby rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for that category of juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. “As a result, Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.” Further, Miller’s substantive rule of constitutional law applies retroactively to cases on state court collateral review.
De Facto Life Sentences & Geriatric Release
The State contends that experience and common sense compel the conclusion that a 50-year sentence for a juvenile offender is not unsurvivable and thus is not prohibited for juvenile homicide offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. The State argues that prison terms of less than 54 years for juvenile offenders are not functionally equivalent to life without parole.
The State posits that a prison term of somewhere between 54 and 59 years for a juvenile offender is functionally equivalent to life without parole. Defendant responds that the State’s survivability standard is arbitrary, unjustified, and unworkable.
The parties disagree as to whether, or to what extent, actuarial tables and other statistical data support their respective arguments for and against “survivability.” Some courts have held simply that Miller is triggered whenever a court imposes a sentence on a juvenile that results in a geriatric release. Practically, and ultimately, the prospect of geriatric release does not provide a juvenile with a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the maturity and rehabilitation required to obtain release and reenter society.
The Wisdom of the General Assembly
We choose a different course, one already charted by the entity best suited to do so—the General Assembly. Relevant to the instant case, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller in 2012, and this court decided Davis in 2014. In February 2015, House Bill 2471 was introduced in the General Assembly and ultimately enacted as Public Act 99-69, adding section 5-4.5-105 to the Unified Code of Corrections. Pub. Act 99-69 (eff. Jan. 1, 2016) (adding 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105).
This statute provides a new sentencing scheme for defendants under the age of 18 when they committed their offenses. Before any sentence is imposed, subsection (a) requires the sentencing court to consider several “additional factors in mitigation in determining the appropriate sentence.” 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105(a). This list is taken from and is consistent with Miller’s discussion of a juvenile defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics. See Holman, 2017 IL 120655, ¶¶ 45-46 (citing Miller, 567 U.S. at 477-78). Further, subsections (b) and (c) provide that the imposition of firearm enhancements is a matter of discretion with the court. 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105(b), (c).
Significantly, subsection (c) of the new juvenile sentencing statute provides in pertinent part as follows:
“(c) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, if the defendant is convicted of first degree murder and would otherwise be subject to sentencing under clause (iii), (iv), (v), or (vii) of subparagraph (c) of paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of Section 5-8-1 of this Code based on the category of persons identified therein, the court shall impose a sentence of not less than 40 years of imprisonment.”
Id. § 5-4.5-105(c).
It must be remembered that the sentencing ranges for first degree murder for an adult offender are 20 to 60 years (id. § 5-4.5-20), 60 to 100 years with a finding of various aggravating factors (id. § 5-8-2), and natural life imprisonment with a finding of specified aggravating factors (id. §§ 5-4.5-20, 5-8-1).
40 Years Sounds Right
This specific number does not originate in court decisions, legal literature, or statistical data. It is not drawn from a hat. Rather, this number finds its origin in the entity best suited to make such a determination—the legislature.
Extrapolating from this legislative determination, a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender provides “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 479 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75).
We hereby conclude that a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender does not constitute a de facto life sentence in violation of the eighth amendment.
In the case at bar, defendant committed an offense, at age 16, that subjected him to a legislatively mandated minimum sentence of 45 years and for which he received a sentence of 50 years. Because defendant’s sentence was greater than 40 years, we conclude that defendant received a de facto life sentence. We also conclude that the circuit court failed to consider defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing that sentence.
Therefore, we hold that defendant’s sentence violates the eighth amendment. Accordingly, we vacate defendant’s sentence as unconstitutional pursuant to Miller, Montgomery, Reyes, and Holman. The cause is remanded to the circuit court of Cook County for resentencing in accordance with section 5-4.5-105 of the Unified Code of Corrections (730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105).
- Episode 618 – People v. Corral, 2019 IL App (1st) 171501 (March) (This Was A Youthful Offender Who Got 31 Years This May Be How They Go From Now On)
- Episode 551 – People v. Harris, 2018 IL 121932 (October) (How To Handle “Big Number” Sentencing For 18-21 Year-Olds)
- Episode 457 – People v. Rodriguez, 2018 IL App (1st) 160030 (September) (An Extension Of De Facto Life Sentences But Is It Proper?)
- Episode 525 – People v. Coty, 2018 IL App (1st) 162383 (August) (Intellectually Disabled Defendant’s Should Be Treated Like Minors When It Comes To Sentencing)
- Episode 413 – People v. Holman, 2017 IL 120655 (September), People v. Hoy, 2017 IL App (1st) 142596 (September), People v. Evans, 2017 IL App (1st) 143562 (August) (Discretionary Life Sentence For Youngsters, De Facto Life Sentences, And More Fun With Young Violent Offenders)
- Episode 281 – People v. Harris, 2016 IL App (1st) 141744 (December) & People v. Horta, 2016 IL App (2nd)140714 (December) (2 Youthful Offenders 2 Different Sentences)