SPRINGFIELD — Nelson Morris was only 17 when he was arrested for a double murder that eventually doomed him to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of parole.
“When you’re that age … you can never feel safe because you’re around extremely violent circumstances,” said Morris, now 48. “There’s nothing positive in prison, so you build bonds with people that’s in similar situations with you.”
More than 20 years into his incarceration, Morris received a glimmer of hope from various court decisions, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found a 14-year-old’s life sentence in another state to be unconstitutional.
Based on that ruling, Morris was able to be resentenced, and ultimately was released from prison in August 2020 after being locked up for close to three decades.
Prison sentences that give inmates convicted at a young age no hope of ever getting out will soon be a thing of the past in Illinois. In the latest effort to ease the harshest sentences handed down to younger offenders, lawmakers last month voted to abolish life sentences without parole for most convicts under 21. When Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law on Feb. 7, Illinois also became the 26th state to prohibit such sentences from being imposed on anyone under 18.
Under the measure, which goes into effect in January, anyone receiving a life sentence — except for people 18 through 20 found guilty of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child — will be eligible for parole review by the state’s Prisoner Review Board after being locked up for 40 years.
The bill is not retroactive, applying only to sentences going forward. But legislation has been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly pushing for that, which would make more than 500 inmates, who were locked up at a young age with no hope of ever getting out, eligible for parole, according to Restore Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.
“What we are doing is giving young prisoners the gift of hope from their first day in prison,” said Democratic state Senate President Don Harmon, of Oak Park, minutes before the bill passed 37-13 in the Senate on Jan. 10. “There is a possibility that they can get out. Their life in prison can be materially different. They can invest in themselves with the reasonable belief that in 40 years they may have a chance to return to society. That in and of itself is a moral and policy victory.”
According to advocates, the legislation addresses an issue that has long been made by researchers: A person’s brain isn’t fully developed until they are in their 20s.
“No judge, I don’t care how good the judge is, can look at a 17-year-old and tell me who they’re going to be when they’re 50,” said Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice, which lobbied for the new law. “Nobody has that crystal ball and there are too many things that go into these types of decisions to convict a kid at that age that are unknowable.”
Criminal justice legislation has for the most part split the General Assembly along party lines, with Republicans taking a so-called law-and-order approach that often runs counter to the reform measures favored by Democrats. But the legislation on sentencing drew some Republican support, with five GOP senators voting in favor, and two Republican representatives voting yes when it was passed by the House in April 2021.
“I consider myself a law-and-order Republican but I do also believe in rehabilitation, and I believe there are some people, some people, who make extremely poor decisions in very early portions of their lives that they deserve consideration once they show they are prepared to make the effort to become contributing citizens once they have served their debt to society,” state Sen. Donald DeWitte, a St. Charles Republican who supported the measure, said during the Senate floor debate.
State Sen. Terri Bryant, of Murphysboro, who voted in opposition, said she agreed with DeWitte that sometimes people can “leave room open for Holy Spirit intervention” and change their lives.
But she argued there’s already a path for prisoners serving lengthy sentences to appeal through the commutation process. She also expressed concern that the legislation will lead to further loosening of sentencing laws.
“I suspect we’ll see another bill in here that would be for older than 21, that would be for less years than 40 and would be retroactive,” she said.
Another opponent, GOP state Sen. Steve McClure, of Springfield, agreed that he expects “things will get worse from here.”
“I think it’s time to start sticking up for victims in this state and their families,” he said. “You allow them to veto this (possible parole), that’s a reasonable discussion. To railroad them like they’ve been railroaded for the last several years again and again and again, I can’t support that.”
The legislature has considered doing away with life in prison for younger convicts since at least 2008.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a life sentence for a juvenile — anyone under 18 — was considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
While Morris was successful in overturning his life sentence due to Miller, the landmark decision wasn’t universally applicable, and some states didn’t allow new hearings for prisoners who met the age guidelines.
Harmon was behind a 2016 law that did away with mandatory life sentences for anyone under 18. But judges were still left with the option of imposing a sentence of life without parole, though they had to consider such mitigating factors as maturity level, history of neglect and whether the convicted felon was subject to peer or familial pressure, as well as past crimes and expressions of remorse.
Just months into his first term in office in 2019, Pritzker signed a bill into law that allows anyone under 21 sentenced to lengthy prison terms for most crimes that don’t carry life sentences to be eligible for a parole review after serving 10 years.
Legislation introduced in early February by state Sen. Seth Lewis, a Republican from Bartlett, would make the law eliminating life without parole for those under 21 retroactive.
“I personally view our criminal justice system as one to reform someone, and if that person has been reformed and can make a contribution to society, serving minimal punitive time as necessary, as set forth by the courts, why not have that person become a contributing member of society?” Lewis said. “If that person has changed their life, changed their perspective and become beneficial to society, why would we want to continue to spend money to incarcerate them?”
Morris grew up near 76th Street and Racine Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. He described himself as “a latchkey kid,” and said his mother battled drug addiction and his father traveled back and forth from his native Belize.
Morris ended up selling drugs and stealing cars. He said he was robbed once, and in a subsequent altercation when two people tried to rob him, he got a gun and “things went horrible.”
Morris was 17 when he was arrested for the 1991 killings, and not much older when he entered the state prison system.
“It was terrifying but you’re in a situation, like, that it’s a sink-or-swim type of thing,” he said. “You gather all your wits. You see what your surroundings is, and you work the room. It’s kind of like playing cards and the hand you’re dealt.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, Morris saw an opportunity to file a petition to get resentenced. It took several years, but in 2020, during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was granted parole.
Once he got out, Morris started working at Restore Justice, eventually becoming a development manager focusing on the group’s fundraising efforts. He noticed how much the world changed since before the time he went to prison from cellphones to self-checkout lines at Walmart.
The new law, he said, is encouraging for people who now find themselves in the same situation Morris was in when he was 17.
“It’s easy to be discouraged when no matter what you do, it don’t matter. If you go to school, it don’t matter. If you act … perfect every day, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
“People in prison, like myself, aren’t all bad,” he said. “I’m not a killer. I’m a person who made a horrible mistake as a child and doing everything I can to live a better life.”