Report: Racial Imbalances, Lesser Offenses Highlight Illinois Juvenile Transfers to Adult Court

(Chicago) –There was only one white boy among 257 children automatically transferred to adult court in Cook County from 2010 through 2012, says a new report by the Illinois-based Juvenile Justice Initiative.

Furthermore, only 13 percent of Illinois children charged with crimes between 2010-2012 requiring an automatic transfer to adult court were charged with first-degree murder.

“Contrary to popular belief that ‘automatic’ transfer is used only on the most serious cases, only 13 percent of automatic transfers had charges of first-degree murder during a recent three-year review,” according to the Commission’s study of juvenile detention in Cook County.

The report, Automatic Adult Prosecution of Children in Cook County, Illinois 2010-2012, found that the 54 percent of juveniles under 17 who automatically were transferred to adult court ended up being convicted for lesser offenses—charges that would not have originally triggered a transfer. Another 4 percent were found not guilty or the cases thrown out.

By contrast, when juvenile court judges made the transfer decision in a court hearing, almost half of cases (48 percent) involved first-degree murder, the report states.

“Illinois is one of only 14 states to give this kind of extreme power to prosecutors, and we found the Cook County state’s attorney employed it almost exclusively in cases involving minority defendants,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI).  “With the stroke of a pen, prosecutors can transform a child into an adult. Time and time again it happens to children of color in Chicago.”

Under Illinois’ automatic transfer law, which was in effect during the study of 2010 through 2012, anyone age 15 or 16 charged with certain felonies automatically bypasses the more rehabilitation-focused juvenile court, and there is no judicial review or appeal of a prosecutor’s decision to try a child in adult court.

Since the time of the study, the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in Illinois was raised to 17, and now 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds can face automatic transfer to adult court when charged with murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and several other felony charges.

In 1982, the Illinois General Assembly removed juvenile court approval of the decision to try a child under age 17 as an adult.

Under the “automatic transfer” law, children age 15 or 16 charged with certain felony offenses are “automatically” tried and sentenced in adult court. The legislature removed the ability of a juvenile court judge to consider each case individually, and eliminated any consideration of factors including background, degree of participation in the offense, mental and physical health, educational issues, and availability of resources unique to juvenile court for rehabilitation.

The average time for a child awaiting trial as an adult ranged from 377 days up to 572 days. By contrast, half of the children charged in juvenile court spend a month or less in detention, the reported noted.

“Trial in adult court fails to protect public safety—children tried as adults typically spend more time waiting for trial, more time in prison, and are less likely to receive rehabilitative services,” said co-author David Reed.

Clarke also said that nearly nine out of 10 youth sent to adult court entered guilty pleas.

“These children are questioned by police without an attorney to represent them, then charged in adult court on the basis of their statements,” said Clarke. “Ninety percent end up entering guilty pleas, nearly half to lesser offenses.  With a guilty plea, there is no trial, no meaningful sentencing hearing, and no opportunity for appellate review.”

Legislation, House Bill 4538, which would restore judicial decision-making authority to determine whether a youth is tried in juvenile or adult court, is under consideration in Springfield.

“It is time to restore individualized decision making on the critical issue of whether to try a child in adult court,” said State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), the bill’s chief sponsor, who has introduced the plan to eliminate automatic transfers to adult criminal prosecution.

Nekritz’s measure has drawn support from a top criminal justice reform advocate.

“Justice is being denied to Illinois children who are automatically transferred to adult court, and there is a vastly disproportionate impact on minority youth,” said TASC President Pamela Rodriguez. “The legislature should support Rep. Nekritz’s bill to return judicial discretion to judges, enabling them to take into account the child’s age and individual circumstances when deciding the appropriate court venue.”

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