By Jamey Dunn
The Illinois House voted today to allow some 17-year-olds charged with felonies to remain in the juvenile justice system, where they could have access to more rehabilitative services.
Lawmakers already had opted to move 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors into the juvenile system. Juvenile justice advocates wanted all 17-year-old offenders, except those who commit felonies that are automatically transferred to adult court, to fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system, but they met resistance from some legislators. The change that applied only to misdemeanors, which went into effect in 2010, was the compromise that lawmakers settled on.
Now many of the same players are trying to get the law changed to include felonies.
“Several years ago, we said that youngsters accused of misdemeanors would stay in juvenile court. The effect of that act has been to reduce the number of young people in state detention facilities and local detention facilities, as well,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of House Bill 2404.
Under the bill, crimes that are automatically transferred out of the juvenile system, such as murder and many gun violations, would still go to adult court. “I think it’s time for us to treat young people as young people because as we know they really are young, and their minds aren’t fully formed and their judgment is not always as mature as we would like it to be.”
The move was recommended by the Juvenile Justice Commission, which was tasked with studying the potential change under the law that moved 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors into the juvenile system. “It is counterproductive and cruel to impose the lifelong collateral consequences of felony convictions on minors who are likely to be rehabilitated. Illinois can achieve better long-term outcomes for 17-year-olds, public safety and the state economy by expanding juvenile jurisdiction,” the commission’s report stated. “In doing so, it is critical to ensure the juvenile justice system is robust by adequately funding and supporting diversion, probation and community-based services, as well as the public educational, health and human service infrastructure upon which many at-risk youth must rely.”
Opponents argued that 17-year-olds are grown up enough to face the current penalties if they commit felonies. “I think it sends the wrong message. There are a lot of sophisticated 17-year-olds out on the street, and I know that because I’ve prosecuted them. They’re not children,” said Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican.
Reboletti said that if the Senate approved the amendment and it is signed into law, gangs would use teenagers to commit felonies, knowing that they would end up in juvenile court. “As soon as this bill passes, gangs will use 17-year-olds to do more of the dirty work,” he said.
Others voiced concerns about the outcomes from the state’s juvenile justice system, citing the large number of offenders who are released from custody and end up back in juvenile detention centers. “Our juvenile justice system here in the state of Illinois is failing miserably,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. A 2011 report from the Juvenile Justice Commission found that more than half of youth imprisoned by the Department of Juvenile Justice would eventually end up back behind bars in either the juvenile or adult system.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. For an in-depth look at the issue, see the upcoming May Illinois Issues.