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New law will allow 17-year-olds charged with felonies to be tried in juvenile court instead of as adults in criminal court

  • Handcuffs (Stacey Wescott/ Chicago Tribune)
Handcuffs (Stacey Wescott/ Chicago Tribune)
September 10, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

The two brothers should have been choosing the colleges they would attend, but instead they were behind bars, unsure whether they would graduate from high school at all.

After getting arrested three years ago for breaking into businesses in the northwest suburbs to steal booze, the teens remained in jail for a few months as they waited their turn to attend a four-month boot camp as their sentences. At 17, they had been charged as adults with felony burglary.

Had circumstances unfolded a few years later, everything might have been different.

A change in the law coming to Illinois on Jan. 1 will direct 17-year-olds charged with felonies to juvenile court rather than sending them through adult criminal court. Going through juvenile court, advocates say, better addresses their behavior and doles out age-appropriate consequences which are aimed at rehabilitative programs. Opponents say 17-year-olds are cognizant of what they're getting into and voice concern over the potential additional burdens on the juvenile court system and state agencies.

Juveniles facing more serious charges such as first-degree murder or aggravated criminal sexual assault who are at least 15 would still be treated as adults under the new law.

Illinois will join 38 other states and the federal government in setting 18 as the benchmark for adulthood when it comes to criminal charges. The law will ensure that the records of young people in Illinois are comparable to those of young people in other states and simplify the process for arresting law enforcement agencies.

The change passed by the Illinois General Assembly last spring and recommended by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission comes after the 2010 change in state law that allowed 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to be tried in the juvenile system while handling them as adults when charged with felonies.

"This is a big step. It doesn't take all of the kids back to juvenile court, but it takes a large number back," said Nora Collins-Mandeville, policy and communications director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.

The juvenile system is where 17-year-olds belong, juvenile justice experts say.

"Juvenile court is a place where young people's negative behaviors can be addressed in fair and just ways that recognizes the fact they are children, recognizes their youthfulness and therefore the consequences of their mistakes—delinquent acts—are age appropriate and premised on the belief that children in our society should be rehabilitated and we as a society owe that obligation to them," said Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law.

In the juvenile court system, judges, lawyers and probation officers are trained and educated on adolescent development and are better suited to deal with minors' needs and the programs and services to help them.

"It's not just rehabilitation. The Juvenile Court Act embraces and accepts the principle of balanced and restorative justice," said Judge Michael Toomin, presiding judge of the Juvenile Justice Division of Cook County Circuit Court.

The approach includes holding the offender accountable, allowing him or her to repay their debt to the victim and society and developing the minor into a productive member of society, he said, whereas criminal court removes people from society in the interest of public safety.

In pushing to raise the age, juvenile justice advocates point to research that shows 17-year-olds' brains are still developing, making them capable of impulsive decisions but also change.

State Rep. John Cabello (R-Machesney Park), a police officer for nearly 20 years, said he knew right from wrong at an age younger than 17 and questioned why an exception should be made for this instance when the state allows them to be treated like adults on other issues. For example, 17-year-olds will be able vote in primaries next year if they will be 18 by the general election.

Another opponent, state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) said, "At the age of 17, people are able to understand what they are doing. Most folks at 17 are either seniors in high school or many might be going off to college."

The former Will County prosecutor is concerned gangs will rely on 17-year-olds to commit crimes such as burglary and drug dealing because they will be charged as juveniles. The change, he said, could strain an already taxed juvenile system. Juvenile probation is more intensive than adult probation and a greater caseload could mean less individual time with juveniles, he said.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), who sponsored the bill, doesn't expect major operational problems as a result of the law. "The numbers are not huge, and the courts and correctional institutions will be able to cope," she said.

Minors who go through the juvenile court system have fewer obstacles to deal with afterward because their records are confidential and can be expunged.

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