Illinois Weighs Second Chances

Jimmy Childres, 46, is one of 103 current Illinois inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Activists want sentencing laws reexamined.
Jimmy Childres, 46, is one of 103 current Illinois inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Activists want sentencing laws reexamined. (By John Smierciak -- Chicago Tribune)
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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

CHICAGO -- In 1978 at age 17, Jimmy Childres murdered his mother, stepfather and brother in what police describe as a "frenzied killing by bullet wounds and multiple stab wounds." At his trial, the central Illinois resident alleged that his mother had beaten him, locked him in a closet for days and forced him to eat dog food out of a dog bowl when he misbehaved.

But once Childres was found guilty of murder, none of the evidence of his abuse that he presented at trial could be considered in his sentencing. Under Illinois law, he had to be given life without parole. He is now one of 102 Illinois men and one woman serving life sentences for murders they committed as minors.

Illinois's mandatory life sentence law, with its tough provision for people whose role in a crime may have been small, was passed in the late 1970s at a time of concern over rising youth crime rates. Now, however, it is now being challenged.

A coalition of human rights groups, defense lawyers and lawmakers is backing legislation to do away with mandatory life sentences for juveniles and to reconsider the cases of those who were sentenced as juveniles and are serving now. Childres's cousin Julie Neilson, a Peoria area restaurant owner, is all for it, even though his mother was also her relative.

"These young men and women deserve a chance to have their stories looked at," Neilson said. "If we were to dig deeper in many of these cases, we'd probably find extreme child abuse. We can't just put them away and throw away the key."

But other victims' relatives and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in Chicago are outraged about the parole proposal, saying these detainees include the perpetrators of horrific crimes, almost half committed by 17-year-olds. State's attorney spokesman John Gorman said a youth would have to be convicted of multiple murder, the murder of a police officer or the murder of a child to receive life without parole.

"These are not routine killings," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister was murdered by a 16-year-old in 1990 as she begged him to spare her child's life.

"We're talking about the worst of the worst. We have as a society admitted there are some who have lost the right to walk among us. If someone is a sociopath, there is no medicine or therapy that will make him better."

In Illinois as in other states, the combination of mandatory transfers to adult court and mandatory life sentences for certain crimes means a teenager could end up with a life sentence for serving as an unarmed, perhaps unwitting, accomplice -- a lookout or driver -- during a murder.

State Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) has introduced legislation that would end life sentences without parole for juveniles. Colorado banned such sentences in 2006, and similar legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, Florida, Michigan and California.

Israel is the only other country that sentences juveniles to life without parole. It has seven in detention, compared with more than 2,300 in the United States, according to a report by a coalition led by Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center and the John Howard Association. The juvenile justice system, which was founded in Chicago in 1899, is predicated on the idea that young people should not be held to the same standard of accountability as adults, and that they are more capable of changing their behavior.

"Neuroscience is indicating what most parents of teenagers already know, which is that the brain is still developing and can't deal with issues of impulsivity and peer pressure in the same way an adult would," said Randolph Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago's Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

But many of the 103 then-juvenile offenders now imprisoned in Illinois committed inarguably heinous crimes. One raped a 5-year-old girl and threw her out a 13th-story window; another forced an engaged couple to kiss before shooting them along a highway.

"[The researchers] tried to do a very honorable job, but they didn't at all find out what they had hoped to find out," said Bishop-Jenkins, who is known for her opposition to the death penalty and is a board member of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. "They were hoping for sympathetic cases and miscarriages of justice. What they found was a lot of very bad guys."

Simmie Baer, supervisor of the Children and Family Justice Center, said the group is not recommending parole hearings for every offender.

"Every one of those individuals is different," she said. "We're not saying the floodgates should be opened and everyone should go free. But some people we actually felt were wrongfully convicted, and some were not the principal offender but were convicted as if they were."

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