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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Mentally disabled individuals are often considered childlike in their character, and as a consequence, viewed sympathetically. But not always.

In an unusual recent decision by a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court, the justices concluded that because juvenile sentencing factors do not apply to a mentally disabled adult, individuals who fall into the latter category may legitimately be sentenced to harsher penalties.

Why? The court said young people, as they grow older, have the opportunity to mature intellectually and grow wiser. As a consequence, they are constitutionally spared sentences that amount to life in prison because of their rehabilitative potential.

Courts all over the country, including Illinois, are in the midst of resentencing juvenile and late-teen offenders following a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down life sentences for young violent offenders.

The mentally disabled, however, remain in a “static” condition that severely complicates the notion of rehabilitation.

In a case involving a 46-year-old mentally disabled repeat sex offender, the court upheld a 50-year sentence and indicated that, if given the chance, it would have approved a life sentence.

“The rehabilitative prospects of youth do not figure into the sentencing calculus for” William Coty, wrote Justice Lloyd Karmeier.

An inmate at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Coty was convicted in Cook County of the predatory criminal sexual assault of a 6-year-old girl.

Because of its bizarre procedural history, the case decided by the high court on June 4 goes back to the early-to-mid-2000s.

Coty was initially convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But the 1st District Appellate Court, in an erroneous decision, overturned the sentence on the grounds that mandatory life was unconstitutional as applied to Coty.

Cook County prosecutors, in what the high court said was a mistaken decision not to ask for Illinois Supreme Court review, instead went back to tie trial court for resentencing.

This time, the trial judge imposed a 50-year sentence, what the high court called a “de facto” life sentence, given Coty’s age. For the second time, the 1st District Appellate Court overturned the sentence because in being a de facto life sentence, it violated the Illinois Constitution’s prohibition on disproportionate penalties.

The appellate court “held that the characteristics of the intellectually disabled ... mitigate culpability and should have been, but were not, adequately considered” when Coty was sentenced for the second time.

“Mitigation” is a term the law uses in determining reasons for imposing a lesser sentence, in contrast to “aggravation” for factors that support tougher penalties.

But while the state Supreme Court said the appellate court was correct in finding that mental deficiency cut one way in explaining how a sentencing judge might view a mentally disabled defendant’s culpability, it cuts the other when it comes to fashioning a sentence.

A mentally disabled individual’s lack of capacity for rehabilitation speaks volumes about that individual’s “future dangerousness,” justices wrote.

Karmeier points out that “sexual recidivism, and the future dangerousness” it entails, was obviously a factor in the Legislature’s determination that a natural life sentence is warranted for recidivists.

“While (Coty) may be less culpable because of his disability ... the characteristics of his predominantly static condition and his age make him less likely to be rehabilitated and more likely to re-offend,” Karmeier wrote. “The whole point of the mandatory, natural life sentence for repeat sex offenders is to protect children by rendering it impossible for the incorrigible offender to re-offend.”

In ruling as it did, the court ignored the issue of the appellate court’s incorrect decision to strike down the initial life sentence because it isn’t worth the time to correct. Karmeier said “because there is no practical difference between a natural life sentence and a de facto life sentence, we choose to allow the latter to stand.”

Coty is not scheduled to be released on parole until 2049.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.