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Illinois increases juvenile court age cutoff to 17

Friday, March 12, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Jeff Long

When a 17-year-old girl was caught stealing $300 worth of clothing at a mall a few weeks ago, she was charged with a misdemeanor in juvenile court. Before Jan. 1, she could have been in even bigger trouble.

She would have been charged as an adult, leaving a permanent mark on her record that could complicate her finding work and prohibit her family from living in public housing, among other consequences.

Advocates say the change in state law — applying only to 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors — means they will have better access to mental health services, drug treatment and rehabilitation programs better suited to their age. They also argue that a 17-year-old isn't mature enough to face adult punishment and hope the law will eventually include most felonies.

"Young adults' brains really don't develop until their mid-20s, in terms of judgment, in terms of impulse control — what we would call maturity," said Paula Wolff, senior executive with the business and civic organization Chicago Metropolis 2020, which supported the law change.

Teens like the one arrested at a Skokie mall will get a second chance. Plus, her parents will have a more direct role in juvenile court than they would have had in adult court.

"In the adult system, it's only about punishment," said Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that pushed for the change.

"That's a great example of a kid making a bad decision and having it be held against her for the rest of her life," said Mary Reynolds, policy advocate for the Juvenile Justice Initiative.

Illinois joins 38 other states where 17-year-olds are processed through juvenile court, Clarke said. But the other states also put 17-year-olds accused of felonies into juvenile court. Those accused of murder and other violent crimes can be moved to adult court, but in some states a judge has to approve.

In Illinois, a task force made up of legislators, youth advocates, and court officials will look at felony cases next year, after the impact of the misdemeanor cases can be evaluated.

The age at which a youth becomes an adult has fluctuated, Clarke said, and was different in Illinois for girls and boys.

From 1905 until 1973, girls went to adult court at age 18 while boys went at 17. When the law was challenged under equal protection statutes, the state legislature in 1973 made the age 17 for both genders.

Clarke said the laws date to when children were being taken out of factories and sweat shops for mandatory school attendance. So setting the adult court age at 17 was not unusual, although it was younger for some things and older for others.

"Sixteen to drive. Eighteen to vote. And the drinking age goes up and down. None of it was really based on science. Now, I think there's more science to support raising the age," Clarke said.

It's too early for the juvenile courts to see much of an influx of 17-year-olds, but personnel are bracing for it. Opposition to the change was mainly about the increased cost and caseload for juvenile courts, Clarke said.

"There was concern there wouldn't be enough probation services and so forth in juvenile court, so the compromise was to start with misdemeanors" instead of including felony cases, Clarke said.

She noted that some also worried 17-year-olds mixing with younger teens in the juvenile system could be a bad influence, but logistics and cost were driving the opposition.

Will County officials, for example, are concerned about housing all juvenile misdemeanor suspects together, from 13-year-olds to 17-year-olds. Mike Costigan, head of Will County's probation department, said there are 102 beds at the juvenile jail. The youngest resident currently is 13.

That would be rare, according to Diane Geraghty, director of Loyola's Civitas ChildLaw Center. She said juveniles charged with a misdemeanor would only be held in a juvenile detention center if they had been convicted of two felonies in juvenile court. But it's another issue the task force will look at, she said.

Mike Rohan, director of juvenile probation in Cook County, expects about 1,500 new cases because 17-year-olds will be joining the approximately 5,000 cases his office already handles.

"We anticipated it will strain our system," Rohan said, adding that the change was supported philosophically. "Any organization taking in 1,500 new clients will feel an impact. In the latter part of 2009, we started transferring officers from areas with lower caseloads to Chicago proper and south suburban areas."

Rohan's office also has formed a team of 10 officers with advanced degrees in social work to handle therapy and counseling for the more difficult cases. But since the change is so recent, he hasn't seen the upswing in cases begin yet.

In Skokie, Detective John Long said the teenager he arrested stole $300 worth of jeans and blouses at Old Orchard Shopping Mall. Before the law change, the state's attorney's office might have approved charging her as an adult with the felony crime of retail theft because the value of the stolen items was more than $150, Long said.

But the new law and her lack of criminal history allowed her to be charged as a juvenile with misdemeanor retail theft, Long said. As an adult, she would have had to post $100 bail for the misdemeanor charge. If the felony charge had been approved, she would have spent a night in jail before appearing in bond court.

Instead, charged as a juvenile, she was released to her parents. Experts say she'll likely be diverted into counseling and other rehabilitative programs.

Rev. David Kelly, who works with juveniles at the Archdiocese of Chicago's Kolbe House Jail Ministry, is one who believes 17-year-olds accused of felonies also should go to juvenile court.

"There's more resources in the juvenile system," said Kelly, who has worked with youthful offenders for 30 years. "In the adult system, there are no resources to speak of. These are kids, so you have to offer them more kinds of services."

Kelly said that's not a stance that is "soft" on crime. Young people in adult court for charges like possession of small amounts of drugs are often shuffled through the system with a slap on the wrist, or their cases are dropped completely, he said.

"There's just too many going through the system," Kelly said.

"With an adult record, (a teen) has a harder time getting into school, a harder time getting a job," Kelly said.

Geraghty also noted that an adult record prohibits working as a foster parent or a day care worker, and could affect eligibility for public housing — not only for the 17-year-old, but his or her entire family.

The Chicago Area Project coordinates programs that keep teens in school, including tutoring and field trips focusing on career options, and works with the juvenile courts.

"From our experience, a 17-year-old person is not emotionally equipped to be part of the adult system," said David Whittaker, executive director of CAP. "We can offer specific types of activities to help them understand the cost of what they're doing to themselves and their communities."

Dumping teens into adult court can warp them, according to Aaron Mills, the Chicago Area Project's director of juvenile diversion projects. Not only are they marked with a record, but they're put in contact with other criminals, Mills said.

"It has a pretty dramatic impact on their future," he said.

Juveniles can receive social services only until they're 21, and Christine Bayer, who heads juvenile prosecution in Kane County, said the older age limit paradoxically reduces the time frame that social workers and others can work with an offender.

"We're almost running out of time," she said. "The day he turns 21, he's done."

She also saw a potential stumbling block in situations where a 17-year-old is charged with a felony, and is later charged with an unrelated misdemeanor. In those cases, the adult court sentencing holds sway.

For example, if a 17-year-old gets probation on an adult drug case, Bayer said her office would likely drop any unrelated juvenile charges. So the offender probably wouldn't get a chance to receive the youth services that the new law is intended to provide.

DuPage Circuit Judge Thomas Riggs, who supervises the juvenile court, estimated there will be about 275 cases this year of 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors. In Kane County, based on an analysis of 2008 arrests, Bayer estimated that number to be about 150 cases. Each of four prosecutors would handle an extra 40 or so cases, she said.

Bayer has only seen a few cases in court so far, but is expecting more of an increase this month because of the normal lag time between arrests and cases getting to court.

"That's a lot of extra cases, but will it completely overwhelm us? No," she said.

Tribune reporter Art Barnum and freelance reporters George Houde, Brian Cox, and Dennis Sullivan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

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