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updated: 4/22/2014 4:06 PM

Study: Minority kids hit hardest by Illinois law

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- A 32-year-old Illinois law that requires juveniles accused of the most serious crimes to be charged as adults may be discriminatory, prevents judges from exercising their judgment and makes it more likely that those who are convicted will commit violent crimes in the future, according to a study released Tuesday.

The nonpartisan Juvenile Justice Initiative reviewed 257 Cook County cases from 2010 to 2012 involving juveniles who were automatically charged as adults in accordance with the state law. One of those cases involved a nonminority defendant. Eighty-three percent of the defendants were black, and 16 percent were Hispanic. Most came from Chicago's West and South sides, according to the study.

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It also found that 54 percent of the defendants whose cases were automatically transferred to adult court ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge that wouldn't have triggered such a transfer in the first place.

By leaving juvenile court, the authors concluded, the defendants lose their best chance at rehabilitation and often go to prison with adults; later, they have higher recidivism rates for violent crime.

The group used the study to draw attention to legislation in the General Assembly that would eliminate the automatic transferring of the most serious juvenile cases to adult court and give judges more decision-making authority based on a hearing that examines a child's circumstances, among them a child's age, education, mental and physical health and level of participation in the crime.

Illinois is among 14 states that have automatic transfer laws. Enacted in 1982, Illinois requires juveniles ages 15 to 17 years old who are charged with crimes such as murder, armed robbery with a firearm, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm to be tried as adults. Once charged as an adult, a juvenile who is later charged with another crime must always appear in adult court, no matter the crime.

Juvenile Justice Initiative President Elizabeth Clarke said such cases often unfold in the same way: A juvenile is questioned by police without a lawyer, makes a statement and is charged as an adult. He or she then pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a set sentence, meaning there is no trial or sentencing hearing.

"At no point do they really get a day in court," Clarke told the AP. "This is wholesale throwing kids away at the point of arrest, essentially."

Before the House Judiciary Committee backed the legislation last month, officials from the Cook County state's attorney's office testified against it.

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican and former prosecutor, opposes eliminating automatic transfers because of the seriousness of the crime. Juveniles can only be incarcerated until age 21, so a murder would not be properly punished, he said.

"You're basically telling a 17-year-old that your sentence is four years," Reboletti said. "I don't think that's an appropriate sentence for that crime."

Reboletti said he'd be open to sending a juvenile in adult court who pleads guilty to a lesser charge back to juvenile court for sentencing and rehabilitation.

He also suggested Illinois could allow for a teenager sentenced to a long term for a violent crime to serve in the juvenile system until age 21 and then transfer to an adult prison to finish his sentence.

While the study only looked at juveniles who were incarcerated while awaiting trial and not released on bond, reinstating juvenile court hearings to determine the best place to try a teenager would not be burdensome, Nekritz said.

"It's putting a common sense process in to have a judge, rather than the General Assembly, make these decisions," said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and the bill's sponsor. "The judge is looking at the circumstances of the individual, the circumstances of the crime."

The study's authors also noted that juveniles awaiting trial as adults spent a year or more in detention, whereas half of defendants charged in juvenile court spent a month or less locked up.

"Trial in adult court fails to protect public safety," study co-author David Reed said in a statement. "Children tried as adults typically spend more time waiting for trial, more time in prison and are less likely to receive rehabilitative services."

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