Over the last decade, the juvenile justice system in my home state of Illinois has undergone many changes and become more attuned to research on adolescent development, more restorative and less reliant on punishment.
But one area not yet reformed is the so-called “felony murder rule,” which allows anyone involved in murder to be charged with that murder even if someone else pulled the trigger and even if the others involved are children.
Justin Doyle, a rural Illinoisan involved in a 2008 crime, is now growing up in prison because he was at the scene when his 14-year-old friend was killed.
A recent Chicago Tribune article recounted what happened when five teenage boys decided to burglarize a home they believed was unoccupied. Unknown to the boys, the homeowner’s friend had been sleeping inside and pulled a pistol from a dresser drawer when Doyle and two of his friends entered the house.
The homeowner’s friend fired the fatal shot, in self-defense, and Doyle was charged with felony murder.
If a murder is charged, juveniles in most states can be transferred to adult court. As the result of a plea agreement, Justin Doyle was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and is likely to spend at least 15 years behind bars. He now has a clemency petition pending before Gov. Bruce Rauner.
While some states have heeded the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions to consider the diminished abilities of youthful offenders when situations like these arise, many teenagers continue to accept pleas to escape much longer sentences applicable in felony murder cases.
Last year, however, Indiana and Massachusetts high courts overturned murder convictions, allowing resentencing for the underlying felonies. Those courts recognized that brain development science should apply in cases where youthful offenders have not killed anyone and did not intend to kill anyone. The impulsive nature of teens, their susceptibility to peer influence and inability to comprehend long-term consequences makes the felony murder rule illogical at best.
How should the juvenile justice system change? Accountability for an event that results in a death cannot and should not be ignored. Steve Drizin, the well-known professor from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, told the Chicago Tribune: “The answer is not to charge someone who did not commit a murder with murder and to punish them equally with those who do. The answer is to punish him more harshly for the crime he did commit.”
I agree. Felony murder statutes should not apply to juveniles, but the fact that someone died should be a factor in determining the sentence for the actual crime committed by the youth.
Accountability should also include the effect upon the victim of the underlying crime. In the Illinois case, the homeowner’s friend who shot the 14-year-old burglar has been through a long period of counseling to try to cope with the death. The harm done to this man is real and could be the subject of a victim-offender mediation.
Restorative justice is rarely used as part of a court-imposed practice in crimes of violence, but this situation seems suitable as a response to the yearslong plight of the shooter.
Particularly for juveniles, logic and procedural justice argue against charging felony murder. In these terrible situations, the use of restorative justice tools would be a system change that benefits everyone.
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