New law keeps 17-year-olds in juvenile court
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Pat Milhizer
Even though Illinois became a lighthouse for other states in 1899 when it established the first juvenile court system in the country, juvenile justice advocates say the state hasn't set a good example by treating 17-year-olds as adults when they're charged with misdemeanors.
On Tuesday, Gov. Patrick J. Quinn signed legislation that changes that.
Starting next year, 17-year-olds won't be tried as adults when they're charged with misdemeanors. Instead, they'll be tried in juvenile court and have access to rehabilitative services.
The new law doesn't change the age for felony offenses. But the law authorizes the creation of a task force to study raising adult felony jurisdiction from 17 to 18-years-old.
With the new law, Illinois joins 38 other states and the District of Columbia that consider 18 as the age of adult jurisdiction for misdemeanors.
''It's consistent with the majority position taken by most states in the country and internationally,'' said Diane C. Geraghty, director of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law Civitas ChildLaw Center.
''And it's very consistent with the emerging science regarding adolescent development as well as brain research that suggests there's a reason that we have set 18 as the age for voting, for example … the science supports the idea of creating that as the legal dividing line,'' Geraghty said.
Furthermore, Geraghty said, the change makes sense because ''the adult system is not designed to rehabilitate anybody. It's designed for punishment, oversight and deterrence.''
Essentially, the new law gives teenagers another year to screw up and avoid any potential consequences when they apply for a job or financial aid for college.
''We start from the premise that it's hard to find a 17-year-old who doesn't make a mistake,'' said Paula Wolff, senior executive at Chicago Metropolis 2020.
''It's part of the way your brain develops. There's a capacity for self control that really doesn't develop until people are in their 20s, and even sometimes, scientists say, 25 is when the brain is fully developed,'' Wolff said.
For some teenagers, the misdemeanor charge stems from annual rituals such as high school pranks.
''By and large, these are very minor offenses, and they tend to be shoplifting, graffiti, trespassing to property.… They would still be held accountable for their actions and have to make restitution or community service, but they would have a clean record so they can keep moving forward with college, employment and the rest of their life,'' said Betsy Clarke, president of the Springfield-based Juvenile Justice Initiative.
The change also could help prevent crime because when teenagers are treated as adults in the justice system, they're more likely to become repeat offenders, Clarke said.
Research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that youths tried in adult court are 34 percent more likely to reoffend than youth tried in the juvenile court.
''We do see the terrible cost to communities when you can not clear up their records … that's when kids tend to turn to other options,'' Clarke said.
The task force that will study changing felony jurisdiction to 18-years-old is expected to present a report at the beginning of next year. Members of the Illinois Juvenile Jurisdiction Task Force will not be paid for their work, and they will be appointed by the governor, ranking lawmakers and criminal justice officials.
For more information on the law, visit the legislature online and search for Public Act 095-1031.