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Young and in prison, with no chance of parole

The Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is cruel and unusual. Will sentences be changed retroactively? A test case in Illinois.
Aging Prisoners Make Up Fastest Growing Segment Of Nation's Prison Population
Prisoners wait in line for breakfast at California Men's Colony prison on Dec. 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, Cali.

Addolfo Davis began his career in crime at 8 years old. By the time he was 10 he’d graduated to armed robbery. And at barely 14 years old--and all of about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds--Davis took part in a crime that the courts viewed as so heinous that he was sentenced to life without the chance of parole.

It was 1990, during the worst days of the crack-era gang wars in Chicago, and Davis joined two older boys in a home invasion and robbery that turned into a double homicide. The war on drugs was on full-throttle, and fear of young “super predators” stoked calls for harsh punishment for violent young offenders.  

Davis was the product of a badly broken family. His mother was a drug addict. His grandmother tried to fill that role, but was consumed with work and the responsibilities of a disabled husband and mentally handicapped son. Davis began robbing people to get money for food. He fell in with a gang that gave him more attention than he could find at home. And getting locked up, he said in a 2008 interview, offered him three meals a day and a roof over his head.

"Everything that I did was basically to get money so I can take care myself," he said.

His last arrest, for the killings, has kept him behind bars for nearly a quarter-century. Davis is now 37 and still sitting in an Illinois prison. But his case has become a key that could unlock prison doors for hundreds of children sentenced to life behind bars.

The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in Davis’ case, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2012 in Miller V. Alabama that ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the chance of parole constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Across the country there are at least 2,500 current inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children, including 100 in Illinois, according to Human Rights Watch. And as states and lower-level courts continue to determine how to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling—some states are applying the decision retroactively, others are not—youth advocates and experts believe the Davis case comes at a critical moment in the movement to do away with juvenile life without parole sentences.

“There were 37 states when Miller came down that had these types of laws on the books, and following the decision all of them have taken two paths: a litigation path and a legislation path,” said Jobi Cates, Chicago Director of Human Rights Watch. “We’ve been watching state after state come to terms with this. We are sort of looking for a tipping point as we believe most legislatures and most courts that are looking at this say if something is wrong on Tuesday it’s wrong on Wednesday too. That means they have to apply [the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller ruling] retroactively.”

“We hope that Illinois will become one of the many states that have taken this very seriously and that the court will do the right thing,” Cates said.

Deborah LaBelle, director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, said that most states and state courts are split on how to remedy legislation and case law involving these juvenile life sentences.

“The more states that understand that the court’s decision should be applied retroactively certainly matters for people like Addolfo Davis who are serving life without parole sentences in Illinois, but it also matters in other states,” she said.

Youth advocates say that juvenile offenders sentenced to life often face harsher treatment than adults. Among the states with the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole terms (who were sentenced as juveniles) are Pennsylvania (475), Michigan (358), Florida (355), California (301) and Louisiana (238), according to a recent report by the ACLU’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.

Those states account for two-thirds of all prisoners younger than 18 currently serving natural life sentences in America.

Many of those states are also among the 13 that have made final decisions on whether or not the Supreme Court’s ruling should be applied retroactively.

California, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, North Carolina and Massachusetts have decided to apply the ruling retroactively, according to the Pew Charitable Trust and a report by WBEZ Chicago. Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming have decided that the ruling will not apply retroactively in their respective states.

Where retroactivity applies, convicts could get new re-sentencing hearings or be offered parole if they’ve served a certain amount of their sentence.

In Michigan, for example, a federal judge in November ordered that inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under 18 immediately be eligible for parole if they have served at least 10 years in prison.

In Miller, the Supreme Court it ruled that mandatory life sentences were cruel and unusual punishment but did not entirely rule them out. The court said such sentences don’t allow judges to fully consider a number of factors, including the age of the person who committed the crime, the depth of their involvement or the person’s prior home life.

In some states, particular types of violent crimes automatically land juveniles in adult courts. Once there, young defendants have been subject to the same mandatory sentences that their adult counterparts face. Many cases involve adolescents who were involved in violent killings but were not the killer.

That’s the case with Addolfo Davis.

“Two people were shot and killed that night by the two older co-defendants,” Patricia Soung, an attorney who will represent Davis during this week’s hearing, told WBEZ. “Davis was convicted of double homicide as an accomplice.”

She said that on the night of the crime, Davis operated on the older boys’ instructions, to rob an apartment.

Alan Spellberg, the supervisor of the criminal appeals division of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office who will represent the state during oral arguments in Davis’ case, counters Soung’s portrayal of Davis’ role.

Davis “was an active participant in the planning, as well as in the shooting and killing,” Spellberg said.

The State Supreme Court will have a number of murky issues to contend with in Davis’ case. Soung, in the WBEZ report, says that rulings should be applied retroactively if they are “substantive and watershed rules of criminal procedure.” And the Miller ruling, she believes, passes that threshold. 

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that in Miller V. Alabama, the Supreme Court determined that youth “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders” because they are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of “irretrievably depraved character.”  Jobi Cates added that the goal of those fighting for Addolf Davis and others like him isn’t to absolve them of responsibility for their crimes, but to restore their humanity and spare them the death sentence that is life without the possibility of parole.

“Youth who commit crimes should be held to account, but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation,” she said. “Applying the Miller decision retroactively will help some young offenders find a path to becoming productive members of society.”