Illinois State House Signs off on Redirecting Most Youth Under 17 From Adult Court

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UPDATE: The Illinois House approved has signed off on a bill  that would place more 17-year-olds in the state’s juvenile courts – steering more youth away from the adult system.

As it is in Illinois, youth under 17 that are, in most cases, charged with felonies are tried as adults. Under the bill, which now goes to the Senate after an 89-26 House vote, 17-year-olds charged with “lesser felonies” would have their cases heard in juvenile courts.

Offenders 17-year-old and younger charged with more serious offenses – among them murder, aggravated sexual assault and armed robbery – would still face an automatic transfer to adult court. The idea behind the bill mirrors a national trend toward easing punishment and consequences for juveniles and greater emphasis on rehabilitation with nod to science and court rulings that minors’ brains have not matured to a level that they should face adult sanctions for crimes committed while still young.

While the vote was applauded in some legal and social circles who worry about prison overcrowding and too harsh of penalities against juveniles, there was pushback: Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a suburban Chicago Republican, for example, claimed the bill might actually embolden gangs to recruit younger teens and adolescents.

The Bureau’s original story appears below:

The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission this week released a report urging state policymakers to reclassify 17-year-olds as juveniles in the legal system, lest Illinois become “a national outlier” by not quitting a practice that most states have moved from in recent years.

While a 2010 General Assembly act shifted the state’s 17-year-old misdemeanants to juvenile court jurisdictions, young people of the same age who commit felonies are automatically transferred to Illinois’ adult system.

“To promote a juvenile justice system focused on public safety, youth rehabilitation, fairness and fiscal responsibility,” the report reads, “Illinois should immediately adopt legislation expanding the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds charged with felonies.”

The IJJC suggested the state alter its policies and raise the adult court jurisdictional age to 18 for both misdemeanor and felony offenses.

“It’s a really well-researched, well-documented and well-substantiated report,” said Commission member and Children and Family Justice Center Director Julie Biehl. “It would be a positive effect to bring those young people who are charged with felonies back to juvenile court jurisdiction.”

Not only must criminal courts in Illinois hear all felony cases involving 17-year-olds, according to the report, the state’s criminal courts remain “categorically unable” to take age into account in felony cases.

“Few states circumscribe judicial discretion so tightly regarding offenders so young,” the report states. “No other state routinely gives more jurisdictional weight to a prosecutor’s initial filing decision than to an offender’s age.”

In addition to raising the juvenile court age limit, the IJJC also recommends aligning Illinois’ juvenile expungement statutes to “match” juvenile jurisdiction and further implementation of evidence-based, community-centered alternatives to juvenile detention within the state.

The report concludes by stating that adding an additional 14,000 to 18,000 juvenile misdemeanor cases annually was “absorbable” for the Illinois juvenile justice system, and that adding an estimated 4,000 juvenile felony offenses would not only be manageable, but promote “uniformity among system actors.”

“Illinois can achieve better long-term outcomes for 17-year-olds, public safety and the state economy by expanding juvenile jurisdiction,” the report reads. “Current legal and scientific trends are clear: by putting all felony-charged 17-year-olds in criminal court by default, Illinois is becoming a national outlier, is ignoring research findings about adolescent development and behavior and is squandering the potential of many of its youth.”

Among other things, the report: outlines a number of reasons why moving 17-year-olds with felony charges to juvenile court will be a good move for both the state and youth offenders, including:

  • Increased recidivism rates associated with youth who are kept in the adult system
  • Fact that youth are eight times more likely to be sexually abused than other inmates when imprisoned in state facilities for adults, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • That moving 17-year-olds with misdemeanor charges does not overburden the juvenile justice system nor detrimentally affecte public safety in communities.
  • Statistics show that since the law was implemented, Illinois saw a 14 percent drop in violent crime.
 This article originally appeared in The Chicago Bureau.

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