juvenile justice reform

Race in Chicago: One Man's Fight For Redemption

“A lot of judges and prosecutors are not African-American and Brown people. They see us as others. If they viewed us as their kids, they wouldn’t be so quick to lock us up and throw away the key.”

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Marshan Allen was 15 years old when he says his brother sent him and two other older teens to an apartment on the South side of Chicago to take back cash and coke stolen by a fellow gang member.

Allen insists he had no idea the older teens would open fire through the front door that day in March 1992, killing two men.

“Ultimately, it was my fault. I made the wrong choices,” Allen told Rob Stafford in a 2008 interview after being convicted of the double murder. He was sentenced to natural life without parole.

By all accounts, Marshan was not the shooter that day but said he felt bad for the mothers of the young men who died and wanted to apologize.

“I remember Miss Gaston saying she had to clean up her sons’ blood and I’m sorry for that too,” Allen added.

While in prison, Allen studied law through paralegal training and filed appeals to reduce his sentence, as life outside the prison walls, passed him by.

“I don’t have any kids, job. Didn’t go to prom graduation, everything,” shrugged Allen,  but he was not deterred.

Allen got his GED and even took College courses while filing appeal after appeal on his case. Finally,  after 24 years, 3 months and 4 days, a court ruling allowed Allen to be released in December 2016.

Now four years out, Allen has been the policy director at the Restore Justice Foundation, a Chicago based criminal advocacy group.

“A lot of judges and prosecutors are not African-American and Brown people. They see us as others. They don’t see us as kids,” Allen said. “If they viewed us as their kids, they wouldn’t be so quick to lock us up and throw away the key.”

A recent report by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission found that 53 percent of black teens were transferred to adult courts compared to 12 percent of white offenders.

The commissioners' report said that despite efforts to "scale back the transfers of youth to adult courts, Illinois law still permits the trial and sentencing of youth as adults and these transfer laws still disproportionately affect youth of color."

The commission is a federally mandated State Advisory Group to Gov. J.B Pritzker,  made up of 25 members appointed by the Governor. They are required to file annual reports to the Governor making sure that Illinois is in full compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The March 2020 report used the most recent data available from 2017 court records.

For Allen, life outside prison walls has brought him a meetings with a Governor, a Supreme Court Justice, and an Attorney General, but most importantly, it led him to Tamala, the love of his life.

He’s now married, happy and helping other young men still behind prison bars.

“Don’t forget. We’re human beings and we make mistakes and we become better people. I’m not the exception,” Allen said.

Allen graduates this Fall from Northeastern University with a degree in justice policy and advocacy. He just took a job in Washington, D.C. working with prosecutors pushing for reform. Since Allen left prison, Illinois has passed a series of juvenile justice reforms and in 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles can only be sentenced to life in prison if a judge finds no chance for rehabilitation.

In 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law the Juvenile Justice Reform Act calling for sweeping changes in the juvenile criminal court system. The new law went into effect the following year in 2016, aiming to keep teens out of the Illinois prison system. Under the law,  all offenders younger than 16 are seen in juvenile court regardless of the charge. There is no mandatory transfer of offenders to adult court.

However, the law does allow for offenders 16 and older to be transferred to a adult court automatically for first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm. Illinois State Attorneys may also petition the juvenile court for a discretionary transfer of offenders 13 years of age and over to an adult court if they feel it’s warranted but it is up to the judges’ discretion whether the teen should be tried as adult.

In sentencing teens, the law allows judges to factor in new sentencing considerations including maturity, developmental disability, home environment, trauma, prior criminal activity and potential for rehabilitation.

Two additional juvenile justice reforms bills in 2016 reduced the mandatory minimum lengths of probation for certain crimes and increased drug-treatment opportunities for youth offenders. Another bill allowed teens whose charges have been dismissed to immediately petition for expungement of their records. Previously, a teen could only petition when they turned 18.

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