Steven Hawthorne’s story shows how second chances make sense. When he got his second chance and was released from Illinois state prison, Steven started building a productive life of service — and he hasn’t stopped since. Right now, there are too many people in Illinois serving long prison terms that don’t make communities safer. More of them need the same chance that Steven got, and Illinois’ laws need to reflect that.
Growing up in Stateway Gardens, a housing project on the South Side of Chicago, wasn’t easy for Steven Hawthorne. And in 1983, when he was a teenager, things went from bad to worse.
An older teenager also from the projects had been tormenting Steven for years. Without the fundamental resources, support, or guidance on how to handle life’s most basic challenges – family support was low, and his father was on death row – Steven coped the way he saw others around him deal with adversity: He got a gun. So when he and his antagonist confronted each other and a knife was pulled, Steven fired several shots, one of which killed his intended victim but also an innocent man playing chess nearby when a bullet ricocheted off the pavement. He was 17 years old, and he was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
After years in detention, one of Steven’s cousins was murdered. He experienced an “ah-ha” moment, suddenly understanding the “fullness of my actions,” as he puts it now. He wrote to his victims’ families apologizing for the pain he had caused them. “Time, patience, and maturity created regret and remorse.”
His understanding of what he’d done and how he could find some redemption were further strengthened when he met Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, an artist, activist, and the founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, who worked with people in prison. “What’s your legacy going to be?” she asked. “What are you going to be remembered for?”
Steven wondered himself. “What can I contribute and give back that will outweigh the mistakes that I’ve made in the past?” He wanted to be remembered “not as somebody who took somebody’s life, but somebody that’s contributed something to the world.”
Working against the deep despair that can be part of being a “lifer,” Steven found faith and worked to become a model prisoner, reading voraciously and earning his GED.
Who better to steer these individuals than someone who had walked in their shoes, suffered the consequences, and lived to tell?
He spent time studying in the prison law library so he’d be prepared if circumstances turned in his favor. At the very least, he knew that even his sentencing judge was skeptical of the mandatory minimum he’d been required to impose. Judge Stephen Schiller had told Hawthorne at his 1984 hearing, “I have no doubt that by the time you’ve reached a mature age of 40 or 45 or 50 years of age, you would no longer represent a threat to the community and the interests of justice … would be well-served.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, would change the trajectory of Hawthorne’s future.
After Miller was affirmed, Hawthorne filed the necessary paperwork to be considered for parole. He was released from Statesville Correctional Center outside of Chicago in 2017 – after 34 years. He was 50 years old.
He told reporters on his release, “I need to set some type of example because I know there’s no room for failure. If something goes wrong then I know this will be something they’ll use to paint us all with the same brush, so I understand the responsibility on my shoulders.”
He got a lot of support from the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a halfway house geared toward helping men like Hawthorne adjust back into society. There, he found the support and guidance missing from his childhood.
At IMAN Steven learned how to pay his bills, became an HVAC technician, and set about in earnest investing in himself and the lives of his housemates. He worked in construction for IMAN, helping renovate other halfway houses, and eventually became a mentor to young men looking to escape gang life. Who better to steer these individuals than someone who had walked in their shoes, suffered the consequences, and lived to tell?
Steven also works with students at Northwestern University Law School to assist them in becoming better advocates for returning citizen clients. “I try to show them how to be more effective attorneys, how to understand the state of mind of this person that you’re defending. And that helps you be a better lawyer to them.”
As the logistics coordinator, residential manager, and community organizer now at IMAN in Chicago, justice reform is something Steven works on every day. It’s literally about life and death to him – making the former meaningful and preventing the latter. He works to provide a refuge from gang life for young men like Talib Garner, 25. “If I stay in the ‘hood, I’m going to kill someone,” Talib said, “or someone will kill me.”
Steven is determined to provide to the young men he works with the proof that their lives matter, and to those he left behind in prison the hope that their lives can matter – and that second chances can work.
For more information about second chances in Illinois and why they are so important, please read and share FAMM’s recent report.
Name: Steven Hawthorne
Original sentence: life
Priors: unlawful use of a weapon
Year sentenced: 1984
Age at sentencing: 17
Release date: January 17, 2017 (resentenced to time served after the 2012 Miller v. Alabama Supreme Court decision)