OP-ED: Automatic Transfer Negates Justice for All Our Children

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Elizabeth ClarkeIn a sobering decision, the Illinois Supreme Court recently upheld the automatic adult prosecution of a 15-year-old who was living in a state residential home due to long-standing neglect by his family.

Unlike its earlier decisions upholding transfer to adult court, the court this time unanimously expressed its concern with the lack of individual review in automatic transfer. The court strongly urged the Illinois General Assembly to review the statute "based on current scientific and sociological evidence indicating a need for the exercise of judicial discretion in determining the appropriate setting for the proceedings in these juvenile cases."

One justice dissented. In a remarkably thorough and convincing argument, Justice Mary Jane Theis noted that youth is different from adulthood, and should be protected:

"Our state, home of the country’s first juvenile court and once a leader in juvenile justice reform, should not be a place where we boast of locking up juveniles and throwing away the key. Illinois should be a place where youth matters, and we work to tailor punishment to fit the offense and the offender, as required by our federal and state constitutions. For juveniles, that starts with abolishing automatic transfers."

Trying children in adult court is a uniquely U.S. invention, as it is universally prohibited under international law. Automatically sending cases to adult court is even more unusual — Illinois is one of a dwindling number of states (14) that fail to impose any judicial review on the transfer decision.

Theis reviewed more than 30 years of research in Illinois on this practice of turning a child into an adult within hours/days of arrest, and noted that the research has consistently demonstrated poor outcomes and profound racial disparities.

In a recent survey of three years of “automatic” transfers of children under 18 to the adult court in Cook County, the Juvenile Justice Initiative found that more than half the children ended up convicted of lesser offenses that would not have triggered adult court prosecution. All but one of the children transferred automatically to adult court were children of color.

In addition to the state’s judiciary, support for an end to automatic transfer is growing among other elected officeholders. In testimony to the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said it robs young people of a fair hearing to determine whether they are suitable for the rehabilitative opportunities provided by the juvenile system. She also commented on its discriminatory application and urged legislators to end the practice of automatic transfer.

Under our rule of law, children must receive fair treatment that is proportionate to their circumstances and to their offense. The automatic prosecution of children in adult court has no place in a fair system of justice. For now, the court has kicked it back to the state legislature. It is time for our legislature to outlaw this practice.

Elizabeth Clarke is president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group working to reform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.

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