Illinois began a grand experiment in 2010 to gage whether the juvenile court system could handle jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases involving 17-year-olds.|
Backers of the plan had hoped the effort would lead to also turning most felony cases involving17-year-olds over to juvenile, rather than adult courts.
Three years later, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission has released a study that suggests the experiment is a success and urges lawmakers to do what 38 other states -- including Iowa -- already do: try youths under 18 as juveniles for both felonies and misdemeanors. "Raising the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction" makes a strong case for the switch and last week the House Judiciary Committee voted 13-2 to send to the full House a bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie which would set 18 as the age of adulthood for criminal matters. While we must leave the details of such a switch to the experts, evidence suggests that, in principal, the move is the right one.
As the study notes, 17-year-olds in Illinois cannot buy a Lottery ticket, vote, get a full driver's license or a credit card. They can't join the military or get pierced or tattooed without parental permission, and when adults mistreat 17-year-olds it is considered abuse or neglect. Yet, these "children" face adult punishment for a wide range of crimes.
For example, the study says, "A 17-year-old arrested for shoplifting an iPod Touch is subject to the juvenile justice system. In all of these respects, the law treats 17-year-olds as it does 16-year-olds: as minors.
"Yet Illinois law treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal: held with adults in jail, tried in adult criminal court, sent to adult prison if incarcerated, and issued an employment-crushing permanent criminal record -- an adult felony conviction."
The U.S. Supreme Court also acknowledged the difference between 18- and 17-year-old offenders when, in 2005, it prohibited execution of young killers for murders committed before a defendant turns 18.
The Justice Commission report says that the General Assembly agreed to the pilot project involving misdemeanors only after a vigorous debate. Among concerns raised were the effect on public safety, the cost of increased probation caseloads and overcrowded detention facilities.
But, the report continues, "Since the misdemeanor age change took effect on January 1, 2010, none of the predicted negative consequences on the juvenile court system have occurred." Rather, it concluded:
-- There are fewer juvenile arrests than when the General Assembly began debating the change in 2008.
-- Both crime reports and juvenile arrests have continued to decline, including a 14 percent decrease in violent crime statewide since the law was changed.
-- Rather than juvenile detention centers being overrun, one detention center and two incarceration centers have been closed and most state facilities are running below maximum capacity.
-- Treating 17-year-old misdemeanor and felony offenders differently created vexing jurisdictional issues, the results of which could destroy a youth's life forever.
As for the cost, the commission argues that sending offenders under 18 through the juvenile system saves money because studies show they are good candidates for rehabilitation through juvenile programs rather than being warehoused in jails holding habitual adult offenders. It also will become much more expensive to do so. The study said federal Prison Rape Elimination Act guidelines require all offenders under 18 to be housed separately from adult. States which don't comply will pay a financial penalty.
Of course, approving a switch is only the beginning and the commission details additional steps to help make it work. They include better education and training and working to capture more funding and getting it to "effective programs delivered in community settings, alternatives to detention, juvenile probation departments and Redeploy Illinois, focusing scarce incarceration resources on only the highest-risk youth." (The survey and Rep. Curries' bill also address a key concern by ensuring authorities still will have discretion to transfer violent 17-year-olds to adult criminal courts when they commit very serious offenses.)
Anecdotal evidence and data show community-based programs work. They give offenders help they need to become good citizens in their communities. Those who receive treatment at home are much less likely to offend again.
And doesn't that high school senior who nicks an iPad rather than an iPod Touch from the local big box store deserve the same chance to learn from her mistake as the junior who makes the same bad choice?
Milan, IL Details
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