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posted: 1/25/2014 8:00 AM

Big difference between juvenile, adult courts

It willo come down to where Mundelein teen tried

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  • Coaches and family friends are remembering Dora Betancourt as a kind, bubbly girl who loved cheerleading and sports.

      Coaches and family friends are remembering Dora Betancourt as a kind, bubbly girl who loved cheerleading and sports.
    Courtesy of Christine Coleman

 
 

If the Mundelein teenager accused of stabbing to death her 11-year-old half-sister is charged as a juvenile and eventually found guilty, she could serve as little as seven years in detention. If she's charged with murder as an adult and convicted, she could serve as many as 60.

That's just one of the differences in how the rules can differ for young people accused of serious crimes.

Lake County prosecutors are still considering whether they want to charge the 14-year-old as an adult in the death of 11-year-old Dora Betancourt. If they do, they must file a petition with the juvenile judge, who considers the severity of the crime among other factors in deciding whether to grant the state's request, said Cynthia Trujillo-Vargas, communications director for the Lake County state's attorney's office.

Teens whose cases stay in juvenile court are treated differently than their counterparts who enter the adult justice system, based on the recognition that the adolescent brain is different from the adult brain and that kids might lack the intellectual or moral capacity to understand the consequences of their actions, experts say.

For example, while adult cases can drag on for years, juvenile court proceedings tend to move more quickly in order to make juvenile defendants accountable for their actions as quickly as possible in cases that warrant it, said Rick Hutt, chief of the juvenile justice division of the Office of the Cook County Public Defender.

Sentencing is one of the major differences.

Murder, in adult courts, carries a penalty of 20 to 60 years in prison.

When someone in juvenile court is found guilty of a serious crime like murder, a judge has options including probation, short-term confinement, periodic imprisonment requiring the defendant report to a detention center for part of every day, or incarceration in a facility operated by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The latter is reserved for juveniles convicted of the most serious offenses -- they can be committed to state custody until age 21.

Then they're released, unless a judge imposed both juvenile and adult sentences, known as extended juvenile jurisdiction or blended sentencing, Hutt said. Under extended juvenile jurisdiction, if a juvenile violates conditions of probation or parole -- such as failing to attend school, getting arrested on new charges, or violating electronic monitoring -- the judge can then impose an adult sentence that the juvenile defendant would serve in adult prison.

Unlike adult criminal records, juvenile records are not public.

According to Hutt, the most successful outcomes result when juvenile defendants receive counseling or treatment while living as normal a life as possible in their own homes. That said, Hutt predicts the Mundelein teen will remain in detention due to the nature of the offense.

Dora, a student at St. John Lutheran School in Libertyville, was stabbed more than 30 times Tuesday morning in her bedroom while the two girls were home alone. The older girl stabbed Dora because she felt unappreciated, authorities said, yet adults who knew them said the older sister cared deeply about Dora and was "like a mini-mom" to her.

Hutt said public defenders in the juvenile division in Cook County often secure probation for clients who plead guilty.

"Probation for a juvenile is a very serious thing," said Hutt. Defendants must attend school, are closely monitored and the court receives regular progress reports. For defendants who violate those conditions, sanctions -- including possible probation revocation -- are immediate, Hutt said.

He estimated about 75 percent of Cook County's juvenile offenders go on to lead successful lives, if they receive appropriate treatment and support.

For those remanded to Illinois' juvenile detention centers, the experience is not pleasant.

"This is not Disney World. This is prison," said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, director of the juvenile justice project for the John Howard Association, a prison reform group.

Ideally, defendants committed to juvenile detention should receive an education, mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, postsecondary or vocational training, recreation and opportunities for social development. But that's not always the case, Vollen-Katz said. Budget and staff shortages mean detainees attend school only every other day. Therapy may be limited to one hour per week, and postsecondary or vocational training is "pretty much nonexistent," she said.

"What we're seeing right now is a lot of idle time for youth. They sit around in day rooms and their cells. Exactly what they're doing is hard to know."

Like Hutt, Vollen-Katz believes juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated.

"We can't guarantee they will be rehabilitated, but we believe they can be ... if we can catch kids early and give them the right treatment and provide wraparound support when they re-enter society," she said.

"I don't think we should be writing them off."

• Daily Herald staff writer Russell Lissau contributed to this report.

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