Illinois joined 39 other states with the turning of the year Thursday by raising the age for juvenile jurisdiction for most felonies to 17 – a reform for which juvenile justice groups have been rallying since 2010.
The new law does not change jurisdiction of some felonies, including many violent offenses, that merit an automatic transfer from juvenile to adult court.
The change comes about four years after Illinois decided to try 17-year-olds in juvenile court for misdemeanors. That 2010 change was in response to policymakers and activists who argued youth, whom research shows do not have the mental capacity of adults, should not be treated as hardened criminals but as minors in need of rehabilitative and restorative services.
“This is part of a wave of reform across the nation to bring the U.S. up to speed with the rest of the countries in the world,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president and founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Evanston.
House Bill 2404 was introduced to address the fact that minors were being treated as adults under criminal law, even as for most other legal matters – voting, military service and so forth – 18 is the age of adulthood.
Lending weight to the argument was that a lower age mostly caught up people of color, with over 95 percent of 17-year-olds held in Cook County Jail being youth of color, according to a fact sheet on the bill from JJI.
The campaign to “raise the age” is at the forefront of juvenile justice efforts in other states, including in New York and North Carolina – the only two states in which all 16-year-olds and over convicted of many crimes are prosecuted as adults.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin and New Hampshire are discussing reforms similar to Illinois.
“You live in New York, and you’re 17, then you’re an adult — if you’ve been accused of having committed a crime,“ Clarke said. “You’re living in [New] Jersey across the river, and suddenly you’re a minor.“
The state of Illinois had decided to incrementally increase the age of juvenile jurisdiction, first for 17-year-olds with misdemeanors then with 17-year-olds with most felonies, due in part to the general thought that juvenile court is more expensive than punishment in adult court.
“[Raising the age] was not a philosophical objection, but concerns about cost,” Clarke said.
However, over the course of last year – in which 16,000 17-year-olds with misdemeanors were included in juvenile jurisdiction – Clarke said every indicator that youth are driving up costs of maintaining juvenile court decreased. For example, there were fewer people in detention and fewer juveniles on probation, largely due to the new police authority to resolve issues at the police station.
Those misdemeanors, then, never ended up “clogging the courts,” she said.
“But there were only about 4,000 felony arrests statewide,” she said. “So it was easier for the state to say that raising the age wouldn’t have much cost for felonies, either.”
While the other states work up to the legal standard of having 17-year-olds tried in juvenile court for both misdemeanors and felonies, Clarke noted 18 was the bare minimum for what should be the legal age of adulthood.
“Research shows brains don’t fully develop until you’re 25,” she said. “This is why some companies don’t rent automobiles to you until you’re 25. It doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing very mature, adult thinking. There’s just more propensity for impulse actions.”
If anything, Clarke said, the age of adult criminal responsibility should be raised to 25 – a thought that weighed on the United States Supreme Court in 2012, when it ruled that mandatory juvenile life without parole for minors, even in the case of homicide, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
“But it’s been quite a journey to get Illinois to raise the age by just one year,” she said.
In addition to HB 2404, HB 2401 and HB 3172 also took hold with the New Year:
HB 2401 allows the implementation of the state’s Redeploy Illinois prison diversion program in various neighborhoods in Cook County. Over six years, Redeploy Illinois helped 28 counties reduce the number of youth committed to prisons by more than 50 percent by providing community-based services and thereby saving over $40 million.
HB 3172 ensures juveniles will not be treated more harshly in juvenile court than adults treated in criminal court. For example, juvenile court judges will be able to place a youth found delinquent on supervision as they already do for adults in criminal cases.