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Panel nixes bill to raise eligibility age for Juvenile Court

Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by David Fitzgerald

SPRINGFIELD — A House committee on Monday rejected a measure that would have opened Juvenile Court to 17-year-old suspects, who now are automatically tried as adults.

While members of the House Criminal Law Judiciary Committee said they agreed with the philosophy underlying the change, they questioned its cost. The committee voted 8-6 against the measure, with two members voting ''present.''

Senate Bill 485 would have increased the maximum age at which a suspect is sent to Juvenile Court from 16 years old to 17 years old. Illinois is one of 12 states that puts 17-year-olds in adult court.

The legislation would not affect 17-year-olds charged with murder, armed robbery, sex offenses and other violent felonies, which typically require transfers to adult court anyway.

The House sponsor, Rep. Annazette R. Collins, D-Chicago, said it makes no sense for 17-year-olds to be tried as adults since they still may not vote, get married, enter into contracts or obtain a driver's license without a parent's permission.

She added that 17-year-olds have not developed the mental capacity to understand that their actions could affect the rest of their lives.

''Seventeen-year-olds go for immediate gratification,'' Collins said. ''They think about right now, not tomorrow.''

Committee Chairman Rep. Robert S. Molaro, D-Chicago, said he agrees with Collins on the philosophical issues, but could not vote for what he called an ''unfunded mandate.''

The legislation would not have provided state funds to counties to pay for the necessary changes, including increased Juvenile Court costs and larger detention centers for the youths.

''It does bother me that we don't put anything in saying 'the state must pay X amount of dollars.' We just put it all on the counties,'' Molaro said.

Collins said the General Assembly has not seen the last of this measure, saying she would bring it back in the fall veto session.

Previous versions of the legislation have passed only the House. Senate Bill 458, however, cleared the Senate by a one-vote margin in mid-April.

When it made it to the House, the Department of Corrections and numerous counties, including Cook, Will, Lake and DuPage counties, raised two red flags — money and space.

Cook County officials estimate that moving 17-year-olds into the Juvenile Justice Division will cost an additional $12 million to $24 million per year and require the construction of a $100 million juvenile detention facility. The Illinois Department of Corrections puts its price tag for the change at $49 million over 10 years.

But Collins called these figures ''bogus.''

The Juvenile Justice Initiative, a supporter of SB 458, contends that there is plenty of space in juvenile detention facilities to house the influx of 17-year-old offenders. The Initiative also argues that new diversion programs and alternative sentencing, such as Redeploy Illinois, would decrease the estimated number of offenders entering detention facilities.

Supporters and opponents have agreed to create a task force to determine what the actual costs would be and how many additional youths would enter detention centers.

''I think that after meeting … maybe we can come up with a number everybody can live with and the portion the state should pay, if they want us to pay,'' Collins said.

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