Raise the Age; Don’t Split the Difference

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Judge TimberlakeThe MacArthur Foundation's new "Mistakes Kids Make" Internet-based campaign is a welcome and innovative way to educate the public of the wisdom of giving kids an opportunity to straighten out their lives and learn from their mistakes.

As I watched the campaign's clever animated video, it occurred to me that it is important for young and old to learn from our mistakes. That’s a good reminder, not just for kids in trouble but for policy makers as well.

In Illinois, we recently made a significant change in our juvenile justice system that, while not a gigantic mistake, is one that other states should avoid. On the plus side, we in Illinois are learning from those actions and taking steps to correct our system.  In doing so, we have learned lessons that we can share with other jurisdictions.  

The change occurred in 2010 when Illinois revised the age of jurisdiction of juvenile court, but only for 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors. Felony charges of 17-year-olds would still be prosecuted in adult criminal court

 This oddity set Illinois apart from the rest of the nation. No other state places the same aged teens in juvenile court for misdemeanors but in adult court for felonies.

Why would we do that?

After a few years of unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the Illinois General Assembly to join with the 38 other states setting juvenile court jurisdiction at age 17 and younger the “bifurcated approach” seemed like a reasonable compromise. Many in the justice system agreed that science and logic dictate that 17-year-olds should be treated as youth, but strong objections based on presumed fiscal and management issues remained.

A lawmaker proposed a compromise, suggesting that starting with misdemeanor cases would show whether or not 17-year-olds would overwhelm the juvenile system. If local courts could handle the change without major problems, the state could reconsider raising the age for felony cases.  

That sounded like a reasonable compromise, especially because the legislation mandated a thorough study with the findings reported back to the General Assembly and the governor.

Not only did it sound reasonable, it was the only way some 17-year-olds would be treated like the juveniles they are. Without this compromise, all 17-year-olds would continue to be treated as adults, with little access to services and all the obstacles an adult criminal record creates.

But there is a good reason no other state had gone this route: It doesn’t work.

It hasn’t worked out well on the street where police officers must determine quickly whether the 17-year-old being arrested is likely to be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor and whether he has the rights and protections of a juvenile or is treated as an adult during interrogations, booking and confinement.

It hasn’t worked out well in courtrooms where 17-year-olds charged with felonies first appear in adult courtrooms and mugshots and criminal charges are a matter of public record.   

It hasn’t worked out well at any point in the system from arrest to county jails to prosecutorial and plea decisions to sentencing and to rehabilitation. Decisions about which 17-year-olds are juveniles and which will receive permanent adult consequences are unclear, unappealable, and often seem unfair. Too often, confusion reigns.

While I don’t recommend this approach for any state, there have been some positives to this experiment, which has entered its fourth year.

One of those positives is the fact that we have solid research detailing the problems above. Because the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission was directed by law to study the impact of the age change, the public and their elected representatives now have a detailed report with data about arrests, adjudications and probation caseloads, plus feedback from law enforcement, prosecutors and defenders. This analysis also shows that moving all 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system is manageable.  

The report also confirms that the best reason for placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile system is that it is the right thing to do for young people, families, taxpayers and public safety. Handling youth in the juvenile system reduces the chance they will commit more crimes and provides them and their families with rehabilitation services that encourage changed behaviors.

So what can other states learn from Illinois’ experience? One important lesson may be to pair incremental change with solid analysis and study to lay the foundation for the next steps in ongoing system improvement. That approach seems to be bearing fruit in Illinois. But the most important lesson is this: When it comes to juvenile justice policies, it’s never a mistake to do what is best for young people.

(To read the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s “Raising the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction” go toijjc.illinois.gov/rta.)