News Local/State

Is 50 Years A Life Sentence For A Teenager?


Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court is considering whether sending a teenager to prison for 50 years is effectively a life sentence.

The court heard arguments Tuesday in the case of Dimitri Buffer, who was 16 years old when he shot a woman he mistook for a rival gang member.

U.S. Supreme Court has held mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles.

Buffer’s attorney calls it a de facto life sentence — an “unsurvivable” prison term for Buffer, who is scheduled to be released when he’s 66 years old.

But Assistant Attorney General Gopi Kashyap argues that’s still younger than the average life expectancy.

“If you’re releasing a person at age 70 or younger, we think that is within a lifetime — we don’t think that’s a whole lifetime,” Kashyap told the justices. “But once you start getting into the 70s, it’s a closer question. The rate of survival decreases more appreciably.”

Kashyap said the standard should not be whether it’s impossible to survive the sentence, but whether survival is probable. She said a 54- to 59-year prison term for a teenager would be closer to a life sentence.

Christopher Gehrke, an attorney for Buffer, told the court that average life expectancy is not a valid threshold for individual cases, since everyone’s longevity will be unique.

“The closer your sentence gets to the life expectancy, even if it’s lower than the life expectancy, you may have no better than a coin-flip chance of actually surviving your sentence at all,” Gehrke said.

He also said life expectancy does not take into account hope for rehabilitation, including gaining employment and reuniting with loved ones.

“The best case scenario for my client in this case, even if he survives his sentence, he’s basically doomed to live the last few years of his life homeless and impoverished,” Gehrke told the court.

According to Gehrke, sentences longer than 40 years deny juvenile offenders the chance for meaningful life beyond prison walls.

There’s no timeline for when the Illinois Supreme Court will issue a decision.

The case is People v. Buffer, No. 122327.