Kirkland Helps Minors Shake Adult Time Over Jail Scuffles

By Reenat Sinay | March 17, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Jaylan Banks and Sylvester Williams were nearing the end of their juvenile sentences at a youth facility in Harrisburg, Illinois in the spring of 2017 when they found themselves flung directly into multiyear sentences in the adult corrections system following altercations with guards.

Banks and Williams were just two of an estimated dozens of predominantly black, Chicago-area teenagers in the custody of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice who were prosecuted on charges of aggravated battery brought by corrections officers, nearly all of whom are white.

The teens were handed arbitrarily lengthy sentences in a "troubling" trend that began in southern Illinois' rural Saline County in 2016, according to the John Howard Association, a local prison watchdog group.

With the entire county having just one public defender reportedly handling a load of 300 cases, the JHA and the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy reached out to a number of firms to help the boys. Kirkland & Ellis LLP quickly stepped in to assist in June, taking on the cases of Banks and Williams, who were facing some of the longest sentences of the convicted teens at eight and six years, respectively.

Lenny Feller

Will Hardwicke

Ben O'Connor

Kirkland attorneys Lenny Feller, Will Hardwicke and Ben O'Connor had spent several months preparing arguments for "a pretty tough battle" in challenging their convictions in court, but when they got word near the end of the year that outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner would likely be receptive to commutation petitions, they decided to go for it.

"We thought, 'Why not? It's worth a shot,'" said Feller, who led the pro bono team out of Kirkland's Chicago office.

The petitions were filed with the governor's office in mid-December, and by Dec. 28 Banks and Williams were released on parole.

"I had given them calls saying we were filing these petitions on their behalf and letting them know that it was usually a long process," Hardwicke said. "And then I gave them a call basically the next week letting them know, 'you're getting out Friday.'"

"I think it came as a shock to them, but they were very excited, and very, very happy that it sort of happened for the holidays." Hardwicke added.

The advocacy groups contend that the rash of trumped-up charges against prisoners such as Banks and Williams followed a 2014 federal consent decree that restricted the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for minors. Some of the staff at the Illinois Youth Center-Harrisburg, where Banks and Williams were jailed, took matters into their own hands, the watchdogs said.

Correctional officers in their capacity as private citizens began to press felony charges against dozens of boys for incidents such as spitting, and the local state's attorney was happy to move forward on all of them. There had previously been two to three such cases of new charges a year for violent incidents resulting in serious injury to guards, juvenile justice advocates said.

The incidents that had landed Banks and Williams in adult prisons were characterized by Feller as "scuffles" with guards, such as "typical pushing or shoving" in a confined space. There were no injuries to officers described in their plea transcripts, the team said.

"It's the sort of circumstances that you would never think of someone being prosecuted for at all, much less being put in jail for eight years," Feller said.

JHA Executive Director Jennifer Vollen-Katz described the situation as "life-ruining" for the youth involved.

"This was so out of the norm, and the impact was so great on these young men; these sentences were so extreme and no one was doing anything about it," Vollen-Katz said.

Vollen-Katz and Feller also cited irregular circumstances in the courtroom, such as the prosecutor, rather than a defense attorney, explaining pleas to a group of young defendants seated together in the jury box, and an overworked public defender who told reporters that he was not always able to meet with defendants before they appeared in court.

"It was not a good situation, and had we gone forward with post-conviction relief, that would have been the basis for it, that there were significant issues with these guilty pleas," Feller said.

The team was drawn to the cases because of such unusual circumstances and the basic potential to help the teens, who had their entire lives ahead of them, according to O'Connor.

"Six years or eight years for anybody at any age is going to be difficult, but for young men at 18 it really is those formative years, and I think those would have been stolen, for lack of a better term, if they had been in adult prison," O'Connor said.

People who serve time in an adult corrections facility at a young age have a statistically stronger likelihood than older first-time offenders of returning to prison after their release, according to Vollen-Katz.

Now 20, Banks went back to jail after violating his parole in January and is expected to serve two more years, according to the Kirkland team.

Williams, also 20, is working on getting into job training programs and is doing well, the team said.

Sylvester Williams and Banks' family declined to be interviewed for this article.

Meanwhile, the pattern of prosecutions against youth offenders continues, though not at the same pace as in previous years, Vollen-Katz said.

The Department of Juvenile Justice did issue a plan for reforms to address the youth prosecutions in October 2017, which included measures such as conflict prevention and management training for staff and an end to sending Chicago-area juvenile offenders to Harrisburg.

The DJJ told Law360 that it was committed to maintaining a safe, healthy environment for both staff and youth in its care.

"When appropriate, the department has referred serious incidents of violence to the local state's attorney's office for possible prosecution and has also learned of prosecutions independently initiated by employees," spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said. "In all cases, the local state's attorney's office has the sole discretion to approve or deny charges."

While work remains, Vollen-Katz commended Kirkland for making a difference for their two clients.

"I really applaud their commitment to their pro bono clients and their recognition that if they didn't do it, there really wasn't anybody waiting in the wings to do it," Vollen-Katz said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at