The future of 17-year-olds in Illinois’ justice system
Legislation signed in 2009 (Public Act 095-1031) provided that 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors would move from adult to juvenile court jurisdiction effective January 1, 2010. The legislation also mandated the state study the impact of the new law and make recommendations concerning raising the juvenile court age to 17 for felony charges. Subsequent legislation (Public Act 096-1199) directed the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission to study and present findings to the legislature.
Executive Summary & Recommendations
In Illinois, 17-year-olds cannot vote or play the lottery; they need permission to join the military or pierce their ears; they are unable to obtain a full driver’s license or credit card. Abusing a 17-year-old is child abuse; failing to provide adequate food to a 17-year-old is child neglect; teachers and other professionals who work with 17-year- olds must report such incidents or face criminal charges themselves. When 17-year-olds damage someone’s property, their parents can be sued. A 17-year-old arrested for shoplifting an iPod Touch is subject to the juvenile justice system. In all of these respects, the law treats 17-year-olds as it does 16-year-olds: as minors.
Yet Illinois law treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal: held with adults in jail, tried in adult criminal court, sent to adult prison if incarcerated, and issued an employment-crushing permanent criminal record—an adult felony conviction. In 38 other states, such a youth would go through the juvenile justice
In 2009, in keeping with legal, criminological, and scientific trends, legislative advocates in Illinois supported moving 17-year-olds from criminal to juvenile court jurisdiction. The proposal was vigorously debated, with opponents raising concerns over public safety, staggering probation caseloads, overcrowded detention facilities and unmanageable fiscal costs. In response to these concerns, the General Assembly passed an innovative compromise; Illinois would be the first and only state in the nation to send exclusively misdemeanants through the juvenile system. Any and all felony charged 17-year-olds would stay in adult criminal court for the time being—until the effects of the change were known and the impact of further change could be considered.
Since the misdemeanor age change took effect on January 1, 2010, none of the predicted negative consequences on the juvenile court system have occurred:
- Adding 17-year-old misdemeanants to the juvenile justice system in 2010 did not crash it. In fact, due to a sharp decline in juvenile crime, there are currently fewer juvenile arrests than when the General Assembly began debating the change in 2008.
- Public safety did not suffer. In fact, both crime reports and juvenile arrests have continued to decline, including a 14 percent decrease in violent crime statewide since the law was changed.
- County juvenile detention centers and state juvenile incarceration facilities were not overrun. In fact, one detention center and two state incarceration facilities have been closed and excess capacity is still the statewide norm.
- Illinois is not wasting costly resources on youth who will not change. In fact, we now know that even felony- level 17-year-old offenders are very good candidates for juvenile court interventions and that there is a net fiscal benefit from sending youth to juvenile rather than adult court. Multiple federal juvenile policy briefs have now offered new insight into the potential for adolescent offenders to grow and change—and have also warned of serious negative public safety consequences of sending minors through an adult criminal system.
- Illinois’ seemingly reasonable compromise did not, in the end, draw a wise, safe, or clear distinction between minor and serious offenses. In fact, years after the change, jurisdictional questions still regularly arise when 17-year-olds are arrested; some are being unnecessarily housed in adult jails and others are receiving adult convictions for misdemeanor offenses; decisions with lifelong collateral consequences for youth are being made without judicial oversight or a clear, uniform statewide process.
- Regardless of legislative action on this jurisdictional issue, Illinois cannot continue its status quo of housing felony-charged 17-year-olds with adult inmates without financial cost. In fact, monitoring for compliance with new federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) guidelines begins in 2013. PREA will require all offenders under 18, even those in the criminal system, to be housed separately from adults in all lockups, jails, detention centers, and prisons. Noncompliance can result in a 5 percent penalty on several federal formula funds and block grants, which support state and local law enforcement agencies throughout Illinois.
- The operational impact of raising the age for approximately 4,000 17-year-olds arrested for felony offenses will not crash the system. In fact, most practitioners interviewed for this report believe the change will relieve some administrative burdens inherent in a “bifurcated system” in which some 17-year-olds are handled as adults and others are considered juveniles.
Of course, adding felony arrests cannot be expected to have the same operational effects as adding misdemeanor arrests. Some of the original fiscal projections and concerns over raising the age focused primarily on expensive interventions for more serious offenders (detention, incarceration, more intensive probation); these were minimally affected by adding up to 18,000 misdemeanor arrests to the juvenile system but do become more relevant concerns upon shifting 4,000 felony youth arrests from the adult system to the juvenile system. yet many original objections to raising the age focused on the effect of the raw numbers being shifted to front-end processing and diversion functions (arrest, probation screening, juvenile court caseloads, and probation services). At the front end of the system, the hardest stage of change is over, and it has been much more successful than anticipated.
While serious youth crime continues to afflict communities, the overall reduction in juvenile crime and increased diversion options have created a smaller and more resilient juvenile justice system. Appropriately resourced, it will be able to absorb the second phase of raising the age while increasing public safety. Since the juvenile jurisdiction compromise changes went into effect in 2010, taking the next step with felonies has become less risky and more manageable, while the enormous economic and safety costs of maintaining the destructive status quo have become more apparent in many neighborhoods, as well as in the research. A great deal of the resistance to further change has dwindled and our state is being presented with the opportunity to do right by youth, their parents, the public, and practitioners. It is time to treat 17-year-olds who are arrested in Illinois as we do their 16-year-old classmates.
To promote a juvenile justice system focused on public safety, youth rehabilitation, fairness, and fiscal responsibility, Illinois should immediately adopt legislation expanding the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds charged with felonies.
Incorporating the following practices into Illinois’ juvenile justice plan will ease transition, promote clarity, and ensure system integrity during the jurisdictional change:
- Housing youth under 18 in juvenile facilities, not adult jails or lockups, whenever possible.
- Creating state or local workgroups to resolve specific technical or procedural questions including:
- Identifying specific practitioner education and training needs.
- Distinguishing state Juvenile Court Act requirements from the new federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) requirements for housing minors charged as adults under the criminal code.
- Assisting detention centers with providing safe, developmentally appropriate care and supervision to adolescents and facilitating compliance with PREA, by raising the minimum age of juvenile detention from 10 to 13 (to match the juvenile incarceration age) and developing appropriate placement alternatives for children under 13.
- Aggregating information from screening and assessment tools, analyzing system performance and youth outcomes to inform local and state juvenile justice planning and resource allocation.
- Realigning the juvenile expungement statute to match juvenile jurisdiction.
- Identifying opportunities to harness federal, state, and local funds to support evidence-based, effective programs delivered in community settings, alternatives to detention, juvenile probation departments and Redeploy Illinois, focusing scarce incarceration resources on only the highest-risk youth.
Responding to changes in the scientific, legal, and regulatory landscape, Illinois’ comprehensive juvenile justice policy planning should include:
- Using (1) research (2) evidence-based practices and (3) validated screening and assessment tools to inform policy, practice and individualized decision-making at all stages of the juvenile justice system, including:
- Law enforcement contact, arrest and diversion decisions;
- Community-based service provision;
- Detention admission and detention alternatives;
- Facility-based (detention and IDJJ) services and care;
- Commitment and sentencing decisions;
- Community-based supervision (probation and parole) strategies, including responses to probation or parole violations; and
- Aftercare and reentry services and strategies.
Examining policy and practice regarding mandatory minimum five-year probation sentences for certain youth adjudications.
Evaluating the transfer statutes under which youth are transferred into adult court for consistency with public safety, youth rehabilitation, and fairness. These statutes will not be affected by raising the age of jurisdiction, but the effects of sending minors to the adult system, particularly higher recidivism rates, indicate that Illinois should ensure that its transfer laws are adequately tailored to reduce violence.