Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a press release the proposed legislation "would reduce by more than half the number of juveniles offenders in Cook County who are automatically sent to adult court."
Illinois' latest effort toward criminal justice reform has been heralded as a return to the state's roots as a pioneer in the treatment of juvenile offenders.
State lawmakers on Sunday passed a bill that would reduce the number of juveniles automatically transferred to adult court. At issue was not whether juveniles can be tried as adults. Rather, it's whether a juvenile defendant should be allowed a hearing in front of a juvenile court judge who would consider factors such as background, mental capacity and culpability before deciding whether to send the youth to adult court.
The bill, now awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner's signature, eliminates the automatic transfer to adult court of 15-year-olds accused of any crime, no matter how serious. For 16- and 17-year-olds, only those charged with murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm would automatically be sent to adult court.
If signed into law, the measure would reduce by more than half the number of juvenile offenders in Cook County who are automatically sent to adult court, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a news release. She championed the new legislation and decried the current law's "disproportionate impact" on minorities.
"Illinois was sitting out as an outlier in how we were doing juvenile justice reform, so this brings us more in line with our understanding of adolescent brain development and juvenile justice reform," said Kimberly Foxx, Preckwinkle's chief of staff. "We led 100 years ago and then fell back in the last 30."
Cook County created the nation's first juvenile court in 1899 on the premise that children and adults are different. But fears of an impending juvenile crime wave in the 1980s and 1990s led many states, Illinois included, to adopt tough-on-crime measures.
Although most experts now agree that reign of juvenile terror never came to fruition, many laws linger on the books. In recent years, however, the U.S. Supreme Court released a handful of opinions that cited a new understanding of adolescent brain science and began forcing states to review their juvenile laws.
The scientific research found that teens had less impulse control, were more vulnerable to peer pressure and struggled to grasp the consequences of their actions, said Julie Biehl, director of Northwestern University's Children and Family Justice Center.
"The other thing we have learned over time is that children do better, in terms of public safety, recidivism and cost to society, if we treat them as juveniles and they are punished and rehabilitated as young people instead of being treated as mini-adults, which they're not," Biehl said.
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, who along with Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, served as chief sponsor of the legislation, celebrated its passage, though it was a departure from her original bill that called for elimination of automatic transfers for all juveniles.
"I think it's a great step forward for long overdue juvenile justice reform in Illinois," Nekritz said. "I've been in the legislature long enough to know that compromise is always in order. I feel good that we made as much progress as we did."
The loudest pushback to across-the-board reform came from Illinois' state's attorneys, with Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office leading the negotiations.
"I believe strongly that any reform or change to this statute needed to adequately balance the rehabilitative benefits of our juvenile justice system with the serious nature of the offense the juvenile is charged with, the minor's criminal history, and above all my office's ultimate responsibility for providing justice for victims of violent crime and maintaining safety in our communities," Alvarez said in an email. "We believe that this legislation accomplishes these goals."
A spokeswoman for Rauner's office said only that "the governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk."