I just saw an interesting ruling handed down last week by the Illinois Supreme Court, Illinois v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327 (Ill. April 18, 2019) (available here), which concerns what length of sentence should be considered a de facto life sentence triggering the Eighth Amendment sentencing limitations articulated by the Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery. For folks following closely debates over the reach and application of the Eighth Amendment to juvenile term-of-year sentences, all of Buffer is worth reading (including the extended concurrence). Here is a key passage from the court’s opinion:
[In a legislative response to Miller,] the General Assembly has determined that the specified first degree murders that would justify natural life imprisonment for adult offenders would warrant a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years for juvenile offenders. The legislature evidently believed that this 40-year floor for juvenile offenders who commit egregious crimes complies with the requirements of Miller.
In determining when a juvenile defendant’s prison term is long enough to be considered de facto life without parole, we choose to draw a line at 40 years. 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. The Supreme Court has made clear that “[i]t is for the State, in the first instance, to explore the means and mechanisms for compliance” with eighth amendment mandates pertaining to juvenile sentencing. Graham, 560 U.S. at 75. As this court recognized long ago, “‘[g]reat constitutional provisions must be administered with caution. *** It must be remembered that legislatures are ultimate guardians of the liberties and welfare of the people in quite as great a degree as the courts.’” People ex rel. Douglas v. Barrett, 370 Ill. 464, 467 (1939) (quoting Missouri, Kansas & Texas Ry. Co. v. May, 194 U.S. 267, 270 (1904)).
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.