New law classifies 17-year-old offenders as juveniles
A bill signed by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this month will keep 17-year-olds who commit serious crimes in the juvenile court system.
Two area prosecutors and a public defender said they are glad for the modification, because it uncomplicates a change the Legislature made more than three years ago that put 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors in juvenile court while keeping 17-year-olds charged with felonies in adult court.
But the women who run the juvenile detention centers in Champaign and Vermilion counties said the change — effective Jan. 1, 2014 — amounts to yet another unfunded mandate by the state upon already struggling local units of government.
"I anticipate the possibility of our population increasing by a third or a little less," said Connie Kaiser, superintendent of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center in Urbana.
"Our staff was cut by a third a few years ago when we had a real financial crisis. I don't know exactly how it will turn out or that we will end up with that many more kids. We'll see."
Judy Hartshorn, director of the Vermilion County Juvenile Detention Center, echoed Kaiser's expectation of population increasing by a third with the addition of 17-year-olds charged with felonies.
For Vermilion County, which rents out space in its center for juveniles from seven surrounding counties, it will also likely mean a cut in the approximately $130,000 a year in revenue those out-of-county boarders generate.
"We will have to limit" them, Hartshorn said.
The Juvenile Justice Initiative, an Evanston-based advocacy group committed to reducing the number of children incarcerated, hailed the change, which is a nod to research that basically says 17-year-old brains have a way to go to make adult decisions.
"We commend Gov. Quinn for signing this bill, which is in line with findings of research into development of the adolescent brain, as well as sound fiscal reasoning," said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
"Juveniles, who are developmentally less competent than adults, can and do change behaviors and make better decisions when they mature. This legislation will help them make those changes sooner and not suffer setbacks that often happen to youth spending their days and nights in prison cells."
"To prevent re-offending and to keep our communities safer, 17-year-olds deserve the protections and the treatment solely available in the juvenile court," Clarke said.
"By allowing more 17-year-olds into the juvenile system, Illinois will give more youth a chance to get back on the right track."
Illinois becomes the 39th state to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles, according to the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
The law does not change the very serious crimes which, when committed by 15- or 16-year-olds, and now 17-year-olds, automatically transfer their cases to adult court. Those include murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, armed robbery with a gun, aggravated vehicular hijacking with a gun, and certain drug and weapon violations that happen on or near school or public housing property.
State's attorneys Julia Rietz of Champaign County and Randy Brinegar of Vermilion County as well as Champaign County Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum were also glad to see the change, but not necessarily because they feel strongly that 17-year-olds are more childlike.
"The Legislature needed to make the decision one way or the other about the age of majority," Rietz said.
"This bifurcated system has been a logistical nightmare because law enforcement can appropriately arrest a 17-year-old for an adult felony and bring them to the adult jail. But if we, in reviewing a case, decide to file it as a misdemeanor, then they have to transport them to the juvenile detention center and notify the parents and go through the required proceedings for a juvenile hearing."
In 2012, for example, of the 17-year-olds charged in Champaign County, 96 cases were treated as felonies in adult court and 32 as misdemeanants in juvenile court. In 2011, there were 67 adult felony cases and 29 juvenile court petitions filed.
"The disparate treatment of 17-year-olds made no sense," Rosenbaum said. "The law should treat everyone of the same age in a similar fashion."
"My primary concern was the fact that it was inconsistent," Brinegar said. "Often there would be an incident in which, within the same report, two crimes were committed, such as a (misdemeanor) retail theft but in the process of being detained, the person battered a police officer, which would be a felony. It's a nightmare to bifurcate those."
Both prosecutors said they also had many cases against 17-year-olds that started out as felonies but in the course of reviewing the facts of the crime and the teen's background, were more appropriately resolved as misdemeanors. That meant the felony charge had to be dismissed in adult court and refiled as a misdemeanor in juvenile court.
"It was more paperwork and more delay. We're already swamped," Brinegar said. "I never could understand why they bifurcated. I was looking more for consistency, whatever the age that was chosen."
"I recognize some 16-year-olds are as dangerous as a 21-year-old, but that can be and has been addressed with transfers to adult court," he said.
Kaiser and Hartshorn also expressed concern about mixing 17-year-olds with younger children in detention. The youngest possible age to be detained is 10 in Illinois.
"Philosophically, I agree with the fact that 17-year-olds don't think or act much differently than 16- or 18-year-olds. I understand the rationale for the change in the law," Kaiser said. "However, there are some pretty serious offenders who are 17, and I'm a little concerned about them being mixed with our younger population and how we're going to manage that."
Detainees are generally separated by behavior, Kaiser and Hartshorn said.
"We're a small facility," Hartshorn said. "We only have 26 beds, so it's difficult to do a lot of separation. That is a major age difference from a 13-year-old to a 17-year-old."
"We're going to have to work with the judges, the state's attorney, the director of the probation office and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to figure out how to make it work," said Kaiser.