Felon for Life or Juvenile Detention?

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The decision to raise the age of jurisdiction for juvenile courts comes with doubts attached for some of the youths affected. Many youths see adult court as a place likely to impose lighter sentences and less supervision. Youth advocates see the age change as a matter of a having a lifelong criminal record versus sealed juvenile files that allow a youth to enter adulthood with a clean slate.

In Illinois, where legislators may soon consider adding 17-year-old felons to the juvenile court system, there is quiet concern by some reformers that juvenile court will be more punitive to them than criminal court was.

Will it be a matter of the “last straw” for a juvenile judge, who might have presided over numerous cases for the youth, versus a “first impression” and chance for a fresh slate for an adult judge?

Records show that a 17-year-old in adult court might well face just probation. There were 23,244 probationers with Cook County Adult Probation as of April 2011. According to the office, 76 percent of those probationers were convicted of felonies and 25 percent of the caseload is under 21.

  Even in some states where teens have to be transferred to adult court – under the premise that their offenses are too serious to be dealt with through the juvenile system – research has revealed that most transferred juveniles end up with a sentence of adult probation.   

A recent report published by California’s Sierra Health Foundation notes a “steady increase in the number of youth transferred to adult court in California” since a ballot initiative in 2000 made it easier for prosecutors to transfer juveniles. “However, these youth are not showing up in [juvenile facilities] or in the adult prison system.”

What this suggests, the report said, is that the transferred juveniles “are receiving probationary sentencing. … Ironically, if juveniles are receiving lighter sentences in the adult court, prosecutors may be limiting the potential sentencing options … that would otherwise be available if youth remained in the juvenile court.”

A recent study in Baltimore followed the cases of 135 juveniles who were transferred to Baltimore City adult courts between January and June of 2009. Of those youths, 42 were waived back into juvenile court by a criminal court judge, and 28 received adult probation. Just 10 were convicted and sent to prison.

Adult probationers generally avoid incarceration; between 16 percent and 18 percent were incarcerated for violating their terms in each year between 2006 and 2009, according to the most recent Annual Probation Survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But in many states, a felony conviction connected to adult probation is a part of a teen’s record that is nearly impossible to remove.

How 17-year-old felons are treated by the juvenile courts in Chicago will “depend on the area,” said Brooke Whitted, a private lawyer whose firm frequently defends Cook County juveniles. “In high-crime areas, those judges tend to be tougher and the corrections department is seen as a resource, even though it’s not the greatest one in the world.”

Earl Dunlap, who led the National Juvenile Detention Association before going to Chicago as the transition administrator (he runs the detention center), said there is only a bad answer when the options are juvenile incarceration or probation that could lead to adult imprisonment.

“Do I think kids should go to prison? Hell, no. I don’t believe they should be housed with adult offenders,” Dunlap said. “But I also don’t believe that the juvenile justice system is even remotely delivering what it should be. And it’s just a ruse for people to say, somehow, that kids are going to be better served there.”

Some juvenile justice workers express confidence that the county’s juvenile judges will restrain themselves from letting exasperation factor into their dispositions.

“I don’t think in juvenile court they’re chomping at the bit to pull them in for a long period,” said Shaena Fazal, policy coordinator for the Chicago branch of Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), a national organization working with juvenile offenders in the community.  

The difference between juvenile probation and adult probation is significant, said Whitted. “Adult probation officers just check to see if you’re still alive. At the juvenile level, most of them are social workers. They try to hook kids up with resources.”

The idea of connecting greater freedom with adult probation is misleading anyway, Fazal said. “A felony conviction is a lifelong stain that can’t be removed, short of the extraordinary remedy of executive clemency. … Adult felon for life or juvenile detention? Which is worse?”