Illinois legislators move to eliminate law that imposes life sentences for repeat, violent criminals

CHICAGO — In Illinois, any person twice convicted of murder, criminal sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, or another Class X felony who is subsequently convicted of one of those crimes a third time risks an automatic life sentence under the state’s habitual criminal statute.

But they won’t have to worry about that anymore if legislation passed out of the Illinois House Judiciary-Criminal Committee on Thursday becomes law. The proposal aims to repeal both the state’s habitual criminal law and the armed habitual criminal law, a separate statute that imposes a sentence of six to 30 years on those convicted of certain firearms charges after at least two high-level felonies.

Rep. Rita Mayfield (60th), sponsor of the bill, told the Center Square it’s a way for the state to save money.

“Basically, to house these individuals as they age, they’re getting sicker and we’re paying for their medical bills. There has to be a balance here, and I am looking out for the taxpayer,” Mayfield said. “Now, if you’ve got somebody like a John Wayne Gacy, lock them up and throw away the key and, I don’t know, bring back the death penalty.”

Top, from left: Representatives Kam Buckner, Kelly Cassidy, Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, Edgar Gonzalez Jr, and Will Guzzardi. Bottom, from left: Rita Mayfield, Bob Morgan, Kevin Olickal, Justin Slaughter, and Anne Stava-Murray (Illinois House website)

The bill was on the brink of dying Thursday after a Democrat on the committee, Dave Vella of Rockford, joined the committee’s Republicans in opposition to the bill. The Democratic majority put the hearing on hold until they could round up more members to vote their way, the Center Square reported.

“We do that on a lot of different bills,” Mayfield told the outlet, “it’s just to make sure we’re able to pass a bill and continue conversations … It’s a courtesy.”

“We have aging offenders that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars,” Mayfield explained to Center Square. “Prison should be for individuals who should actually be there, not for those individuals who have committed crimes out of stupidity, mental health, or drug usage. We want to make sure we are locking up the right people.”

Life behind bars

So, who are the people locked up for life sentences in Illinois?

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections (Excel sheet), there were 1,468 inmates serving life terms as of December 31, and 1,183 of those prisoners—about 81%— were behind bars for murder. Another 167 were in prison for criminal sexual assault and rape.

Only six of the 1,468 were given life sentences for a technically non-violent crime, and five of those are the leaders of the Black Souls street gang sentenced under the state’s racketeering laws in 2018. The sixth man serving life for a non-violent crime is Darren Maclin, a 59-year-old, 15-time convicted felon who’s in for armed habitual criminal. His previous convictions include attempted murder, armed habitual criminal, home invasion, attempted armed robbery, and nine burglaries, according to his IDOC profile.

Of those serving life, only 51 are 75 years old or older, ages when medical care might be expected to be increasingly necessary. They’re all in for violent crimes, including 31 murderers and 15 rapists.

It’s unclear which of those inmates legislators believe the state can’t afford to keep in prison.

The supporters

On Friday, we sent messages to all nine representatives who voted in favor of repealing the state’s habitual criminal laws: Kam Buckner, Kelly Cassidy, Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, Bob Morgan, Justin Slaughter, Edgar Gonzalez Jr., Will Guzzardi, Kevin Olickal, and Anne Stava-Murray. We asked them if the legislation would allow someone to be paroled even if they were convicted of shooting people three different times in their lives and, if so, why they support the measure.

None of them replied. But Mayfield, the bill’s sponsor, did.

“The amendment is perspective and repeals the law at a future undetermined date,” she wrote. “What is being proposed is that individuals will be sentenced based on the crime they commit at the time they commit it. Sentence length will be at the discretion of the justice system, not mandated by the legislature.”

She said no one currently in prison under the statutes would be eligible to seek release. The bill, said Mayfield, is an attempt to “improve the process for sentencing.”

Mayfield called the bill a “work in progress” and, in a later email, said there was “no intention” to advance it as it was currently written.

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About Tim Hecke 302 Articles
Tim Hecke is CWBChicago's managing partner. He started his career at KMOX, the legendary news radio station in St. Louis. From there, he moved on to work at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. Tim went on to build syndicated radio news and content services that served every one of America's 100 largest radio markets. He became CWBChicago's managing partner in 2019. His email address is tim@cwbchicago.com