Illinois takes huge step in juvenile justice reform

[Photo by Eric Allix Rogers/flickr]

[Photo by Eric Allix Rogers/flickr]

Chicago police began turning 17 year olds over to the juvenile courts last week, under a new Illinois law that sets the bar for felony prosecution at 18.

A little more than a year ago, The Chicago Reporter revealed that Chicago police trumped all of the nation’s biggest cities when it came to arresting 17 year olds. Arrests in Chicago rivaled the number of teens charged with a crime in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston combined.

The practice of holding minors in adult lockups as their cases drag through the courts is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for more than a century in Illinois but not in the numbers that we’ve seen since ramping up the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.

From the beginning of 2007 through the first few months of 2012 alone, more than 4,300 minors became felons in Cook County–before they were old enough to smoke, vote or even visit a doctor on their own.

Most of the cases involved African-American boys who were charged with nonviolent crimes like peddling drugs or stealing. Seventeen year olds like Jemarco Baldon missed days, weeks and, in some cases, months of their high school junior or senior year because they were locked up or in court.

The Reporter was there as Jemarco’s case was continued month after month because of missing evidence, including a surveillance tape that allegedly captured him selling drugs. We watched his public defender slam the door in his face when he asked questions. Navigating the criminal courts alone wasn’t easy, but if the state was going to call him a man, Jemarco was determined to take it like one. “I’m still a kid, but at this age, I’ve got to learn how to be a young adult,” he said. Watch:

Jemarco only stayed in the Cook County Jail for one night. He was lucky. The others booked at age 17 stayed for months, on average. And there were roughly 20,000 of them during the past seven years. That’s according to our analysis of jail discharge data provided by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office. That’s roughly the same number of students enrolled as juniors at Chicago public high schools last year.

Under the new law, 17 year olds can still be transferred to the adult courts if they’re charged with the most heinous crimes–like murder or a brutal rape. If history is a good indicator, those numbers would likely be small.

Just 1 percent–or 173–of those juveniles held in Cook County Jail between the beginning of 2006 and July of 2013 were charged with attempted murder or murder. The real volume was for the nonviolent offenses; a third, or 5,201, of the cases involved drugs–including cannabis.

I recently got a Facebook message from Jemarco. “How u doing Angela,” he wrote. “I heard all 17 year olds are being moved to the juvie January 1st.”

I was excited that he finally believed that the law had changed.

Though, I found out that what he’d heard on the street isn’t exactly true. Not all 17 year olds will be moved to juvenile detention. Only the teens charged on Jan. 1 or after will get transferred to the juvenile courts.

That means the 197 minors currently sitting in a Cook County Jail cell will stay put, according to the sheriff’s office. There likely would have been one more if Tyshawn Carter hadn’t hung himself with a bed sheet last week.

One afternoon two summers ago Jemarco and I were sitting on his back porch, I asked him why he let me follow him around and let the world in on his bad behavior. He said something about not wanting to be “just another statistic. “

In the end, the state commission that recommended raising the age to 18 heavily referenced the Reporter’s article. The numbers our reporting dug up were important but the most powerful part of the investigation was that we had the chance to show Jemarco for who he was: a kid.

Now young people coming up behind him will have the chance to seal their youthful mistakes, but thousands more will wear their felony convictions for the rest of their lives. Jemarco included. Maybe one of these days he’ll agree to letting me do a follow-up piece so we can see how that’s affecting him now that he really is a man.

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