Illinois’ First District Appellate Court ruled Wednesday that de facto life sentences for those with intellectual disabilities is a violation of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Illinois proportionate penalties clause.
The appellate panel found that a 50-year sentence handed down to Illinois resident William Coty, who had been convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of a minor in 2004, was too harsh. Because Coty had a prior conviction for aggravated criminal sexual assault, a Cook County trial court had no choice but to sentence him to mandatory natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. After an appeal, the sentence was shortened to 50 years, which was still a de facto life sentence for the 58-year-old Coty.
But on this new appeal, the First District Court was asked for the first time to examine whether a de facto life sentence was imposed in a manner inconsistent with the 8th Amendment and the state’s proportionate penalties clause. The panel found that those with intellectual disabilities should be treated the same in sentencing as juveniles.
“Intellectually disabled individuals, just like juveniles, are less culpable, where the deficiencies associated with intellectual disability diminish their personal culpability,” wrote Justice James Fitzgerald Smith, who delivered the opinion for the panel.
The justices also pointed to other challenges defendants with intellectual disabilities face when put into a court system that normally deals with typically functioning adults.
“Additional risks accompanying the unique characteristics of the intellectually disabled are the possibility that they will unwittingly confess to crimes they did not commit, their lesser ability to give their counsel meaningful assistance, and the fact that they are typically poor witnesses, and their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes,” the opinion said.
The justices said they looked to contemporary understandings of what qualifies as “cruel and unusual punishment,” but said the standards were difficult to pin down. However, they said, it’s clear that they are ever-evolving, and that it’s important to look at what might “shock the moral sense of the community.”
“Accordingly, as of today, our community’s standards of decency appear to have evolved to prohibit the imposition of de jure and de facto mandatory and discretionary life sentences for juveniles, where procedurally the court fails to consider the attendant characteristics of youth,” the panel wrote.
While cases involving those with intellectual disabilities are rare, juvenile sentencing has been a recent issue in Illinois. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling striking down the sentences of juveniles who were given life without parole. A subsequent Illinois Supreme Court ruling gave inmates the chance for resentencing hearings, though many of those juveniles still sit behind bars waiting for their court dates.
Sentencing reform has not yet made a major appearance in the Attorney General race, but both State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) and Republican Erika Harold are expected to push the issue. Raoul is a former Cook County prosecutor and has served as the vice chair of the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council and on the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.
In an email Wednesday, Raoul spokeswoman Aviva Bowen pointed to more than a dozen bills the Democrat has sponsored dealing with sentencing reform and juvenile justice.
“Influenced by his experience as a prosecutor and his concern for neighborhoods plagued by crime and mass incarceration, Kwame has made criminal justice reform a focus of his career — and his volume of work is expansive,” she said.
Harold has long been involved in prison ministry, and serves on the national board of directors for the faith-based organization Prison Fellowship. A Harold spokesman described the Republican as “very passionate” about sentencing reform.