Growing up in Chicago, Adolfo Davis was already marked for a life of sorrow. With a drug-addicted mother and absent father, Davis was raised by his grandmother, who was so poor that she could barely feed him. At the age of 9, a hungry Davis tried to steal a bag of food from a girl while he was pumping gas for pennies. Davis lived in a “crawl space with dirt floors.” His behavior deteriorated as a reaction to the profound stress – he banged his head against the wall, wet the bed, and had nightmares and hallucinations. There was a recommendation of a therapeutic day school that went unheeded; he was referred to juvenile hall, not social services. He began actually stealing food. Then, he joined a gang that provided him with a place to sleep and a little money.
In October of 1990, Davis participated with two other young men in the shooting and robbery of rival gang members. The shooting killed two people and wounded two others. It is likely that Davis, the youngest of the defendants, never fired a shot that night.
In the wake of the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, holding that juveniles could not automatically be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that juveniles serving life should receive resentencing hearings which better considered factors like childhood abuse and culpability. Childhoods like Davis’s seem like a prime examples of the Supreme Court’s point—new scientific knowledge about adolescence and brain development show that childhoods marked by extreme deprivation and stress substantially impair a child’s ability to make law-abiding decisions. Davis is now 39 years old and has already shown an impressive ability to change in his 25 years behind bars.
Alvarez protested that Davis deserved LWOP anyways and the trial court agreed with her. (Davis’ sentencing is on appeal.) She went above and beyond, however, when she also strenuously opposed the Illinois Supreme Court’s holding, which was consistent with a growing consensus in the United States limiting juvenile LWOP (JLWOP) sentences for children.
Unsurprisingly, Cook County is one of the hotspots for JLWOP sentences. Even as many states have moved to eliminate life without parole for kids, Alvarez did the opposite—according to a recent report, Cook County is one of top five counties for JLWOP sentences.
Alvarez has a long history of disregarding minority teens who have become by-products in Chicago’s criminal justice system despite calls by people like former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to minimize arrests in schools. In 2009, the number of 17-year-olds arrested on potential felony charges in Chicago—6,133 in all—was the highest in the nation. Three-fourths of the teens arrested are black.