Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=123577
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 12:53:43 PM CST
Source: llinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office
Beginning next year, 17-year-olds charged with crimes like trespassing, theft and small-time drug offenses will be tried as juveniles, giving them access to more community-based services.
A law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last month, which goes into effect in 2010, places 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors in juvenile court, a move that brings Illinois into line with 38 other states.
“The thing you have to ask yourself is: What is the fundamental difference between a 16-year-old sophomore and a 17-year-old junior?” said George Timberlake, a former juvenile judge in the 2nd Judicial Circuit. “Any mother will tell you there isn’t much of one, and there shouldn’t be one to the court.”
Illinois will continue to prosecute 17-year-olds charged with felonies as adults.
About 14,000 17-year-olds were arrested for misdemeanors in Illinois in 2005, the last year of age-specific data. Most of those cases never go to trial; Cook County, for example, prosecutes only about a quarter of all juvenile cases it gets from police.
But those that do will no longer go to adult criminal court, where studies show they are far more likely to be sent to prison and to reoffend when they get out.
A 1996 study in New York and New Jersey found that a teen tried for robbery as an adult went to prison more than twice as often as the same kid, tried for the same crime, but as a juvenile. A similar study in Florida found that teens convicted in adult court were 34 percent more likely to be arrested again than those convicted in juvenile court.
“Nothing good happens to kids in prison,” said Elizabeth Clarke, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, which worked closely with sponsors of the bill in Springfield.
While most people are on board with the spirit of the bill – recognizing that a high-school junior charged with trespassing probably doesn’t belong in the adult system – some have raised concern about the logistics.
One prosecutor said teens charged with certain petty crimes might not fare better in the juvenile system.
Tom Bilyk, an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County’s juvenile division, called the new law “a double-edged sword” that could hurt as many kids as it helps. Though juvenile courts are generally more lenient in the sentences they hand out, they tend to view even small-time lawbreaking behavior more seriously and intervene more often to keep kids on the right track.
“Misdemeanors are tiddlywinks in adult court,” Bilyk said. “Yes, for some kids, the services of juvenile court will help them, but there are going to be cases where a kid will end up with a sentence for something that wouldn’t even have gone to trial [in the adult system].”
Indeed, the Department of Juvenile Justice – which currently houses about 1,300 teens in state prisons – consistently reports that about 7 or 8 percent of its population is in for misdemeanors. That’s about 100 teenagers, all convicted of low-level offenses.
The law also does not come with any money for extra judges or public defenders for counties, like Cook, that use separate courtrooms and staff for juvenile cases. “There’s been no real plan to deal with the number of cases this is going to add,” Bilyk said. “Increased caseload means we can’t do our job as well.”
But the Juvenile Justice Initiative, based on what researcher Elizabeth Kooy called a very liberal estimate of an extra 3,000 cases each year, found the change add, at most, one case per courtroom per day.
"The vast majority of other states are already doing this, and so is almost everyone in the world," Clarke said. "It's time Illinois joined them."
The Sangamon County juvenile detention center in Springfield is a beautiful jail.
The 48-bed facility is less than a decade old, one of thousands nationwide that were built or expanded in the mid- and late-1990s, when the federal government gave counties millions of dollars for youth jails and prisons.
This thinking reflected the law and order mentality that had come to define the system during the 1980s, when a skyrocketing juvenile crime rate stoked fears of an impending wave of teenaged “super-predators.”
Today, one entire wing of the facility is empty. The number of youths in detention, once in the low 40s, is around 22.
The center also runs three alternative programs for about two dozen kids awaiting trial or serving out probation. On this side of the building, there are no locked doors, no orange jumpsuits, no shackles. Instead, most of the kids live at home and spend evenings at the center doing homework, attending counseling and shooting hoops.
Programs like Sangamon County’s are the fruits of a decade of reform to Illinois’ juvenile justice system. They have different names and intervene at different stages in a child’s often-serpentine path through the courts.
But all offer alternatives for the vast majority of teens who could be better handled in their communities, said Terry Moore, Sangamon County’s chief of probation and court services, and represent a drastic change of direction in the system.
“Juvenile crime isn’t a problem we can build ourselves out of,” said Moore, who was superintendent of the detention center until 2006. “There are better ways to treat them than lock up and look the other way.”
Setting the stage
In 1998, Illinois’ juvenile justice system was approaching what should have been a celebratory moment: 1999 would mark the 100th birthday of the Cook County juvenile court, the first in the nation's history to recognize the differences between children and adults under the law.
A century later, scientific research was increasingly supporting that idea. Advanced imaging technology was showing that brain development continues well into a person's 20s, rather than ending in the late teens, as conventional wisdom had held.
Study after study was showing that teenagers were not adults, especially in their ability to make good decisions -- and to understand the consequences of bad ones.
Yet they were finding themselves in court systems that increasingly refused to make that distinction.
In response to a nationwide spike in crime in the 1980s, many states -- Illinois among them -- were treating juveniles more and more like mini-adults, imposing "adult time for adult crime" and building bigger and more secure prisons for youth offenders. More than 2,600 juveniles were in Illinois state prisons in 1998, with hundreds more serving shorter stints at county jails, and many felt Illinois had turned its back on its legacy of leniency and rehabilitation.
“Rental agencies won’t rent cars to people under 25,” said Elizabeth Clarke, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy group. “How do they know something that the criminal justice system doesn’t?”
Out of this environment came the Juvenile Justice Reform Provisions of 1998, more than 200 pages of sweeping changes to the state's existing system. At their heart, the reforms emphasized community-based alternatives to detention and prison time.
They also introduced as the system's new guiding principle “balanced and restorative justice,” a more inclusive framework that views offenses not as a crime against the state, but rather as a behavior with ripple effects throughout a community. Victims were brought into the process, and sentences were not about paying a debt, but about righting a wrong.
“The question becomes not ‘What is the crime?’ but ‘What is the harm?’” said Sally Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice Initiative. “Crime is never just a one-on-one event.”
Such a far-reaching vision required getting everybody – prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, reformers, social workers – on board, and that required some concessions. The resulting law was "one part reform and two parts compromise,” said Randall Roberts, then an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County and a principal author of the bill.
For example, at the same time it emphasized community-based alternatives, the bill increased the length of time a juvenile could be held awaiting trial and made it easier for repeat offenders to be transferred to adult court. One former juvenile judge called the measure schizophrenic, and many advocates viewed it as a half-hearted attempt at reform.
But the process of creating the bill took many key players out of the fractured and often adversarial context of the courts and got them talking.
Dozens of groups sprang up in those first two years: legislative task forces, transition teams, oversight and steering committees for new community programs, and the so-called juvenile justice councils that the law encouraged each county to form.
For the first time, stakeholders in the system began to meet regularly, a dialogue that many now view as the law's real victory.
“[The reforms] were the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one,” Clarke said. “The process created all these new relationships that hadn’t existed before.”
A new hope
Fast forward to 2004.
Five years in, the results of the reforms were spotty. Some counties – Cook and DuPage among them – had embraced the changes, charging and sending fewer youths to prison and instead using things like mediation and community service.
But in other counties, Wolf said, it was business as usual. A 2002 statewide survey of judges, prosecutors and other court officials found that less than half were familiar with the reforms. Even those who knew about the changes, Wolf said, “weren't going to change their ideas about criminals just because a bunch of people in Springfield told them to.”
And the system was still broken: After two years of declines, the number of youths in the Department of Corrections had ticked upward again. Recidivism was a third higher than it was five years earlier, when the reforms were passed. More than half of juveniles released from state prison in 2001 earlier were back behind bars by 2004.
The cost of each of those inmates was nearly $71,000 in 2004 – about nine times what the state spent on a public school student that year.
“Tell me any business in the private sector that is allowed to continue operating with a 50 percent failure rate,” said James Coldren, Jr., a criminal justice professor at Governors State University in University Park. “It was just a phenomenally expensive failure.”
And so several groups pitched another model, similar to programs already operating in Ohio and Wisconsin: Instead of spending millions to keep kids in prison, with dismal results, why not treat them in their own communities, with proven methods, at a fraction of the cost?
And so in 2005, Redeploy Illinois launched in four sites around the state. In return for promising to reduce their commitments to the Department of Corrections by 25 percent, the four sites received funding for community-based treatment.
Redeploy Illinois has kept almost 400 youths out of state lockup, and has done so at about a tenth of the cost of a prison bed. Community-based treatment runs between $5,000 and $10,000 each year, said Coldren, a member of the oversight committee. Five more counties became Redeploy sites this year, and a bill currently awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature would make Redeploy Illinois a permanent program.
Similar programs have blossomed. Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which keeps youths out of county holding facilities while they await trial, has expanded to 11 sites statewide. An initiative in DuPage County cut the number of kids in the county detention facility by half between 1999 and 2006, at a savings of more than $1 million annually.
With more options, prosecutors saw a way out of the “lock up or let loose” conundrum, and the number of youths committed to state prisons began to drop. By 2006, it was under 1,500 and last year, it was just over 1,300 – a 56 percent drop since the reforms were enacted.
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem you have starts to look like a nail,” said James McCarter, a former Cook County prosecutor. “Well, these new policies gave the system a lot more tools.”
There have been more milestones. In 2006, Illinois received more than $11 million from the MacArthur Foundation to be part of its Models for Change program, a nationwide movement aimed at finding alternatives to detention and addressing the disproportionate number of minorities in the juvenile system. The same year, juvenile prisons, long overseen by the Department of Corrections, splintered off to their own department, a bureaucratic recognition of ground-level changes.
The spirit of reform has also found its way to Springfield.
Since 2005, there have been almost a dozen legislative efforts to roll back the reforms' more punitive measures and to continue moving toward a system that, as Clarke said, not only talks about rehabilitation, but practices it.
Among them: making it easier to expunge juvenile records, decreasing the time minors can be detained, and ensuring juveniles access to a lawyer before they appear in court. Starting in 2010, 17-year-olds charged with a misdemeanor will be tried in juvenile court rather than adult court.
The net effect is “a changing culture” around juvenile crime, said Judge Sophia Hall, who headed Cook County's juvenile division form 1992 to 1995.
Back then, she said, an assignment to juvenile court was a career-ender, one that pit an individual judge's desire to be lenient against a system that had become increasingly punitive.
Now, she said, judges volunteer for the job. "It's a different place and, I think, a better place," she said. "It gives you the chance to be fair, to be effective, which is why we all got into this in the first place."