By Staff Writer
January 08. 2014 10:37PM
Sangamon Co. prosecutor supports recent change in juvenile law
The new state law that classifies 17-year-olds charged with some felonies as juveniles rather than adults won’t have much effect on the Sangamon County justice system.
“Nothing has changed as far as the number of prosecutors and judges assigned to juvenile cases,” said Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser. “We may have some fewer cases in adult court, but the violent ones will still be adjudicated there.”
Gov. Pat Quinn in July signed legislation that raises the age of the state’s juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds charged with felonies. The reform is the second step in a process that began in 2010 when 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors were moved from adult to juvenile courts on the theory they will receive more rehabilitative services in the juvenile justice system.
The new law, effective Jan. 1, doesn’t change laws that automatically place youths age 15 or older who commit certain serious crimes in adult criminal court.
Milhiser said he supported the change.
“It makes sense to have it one way or the other instead of bifurcated like it was,” he said. “As long as we can still prosecute the violent offenses in adult court, and we have the ability to do that.”
Crimes including first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and certain gun crimes still are filed directly in adult court if the accused is 15 or older.
Others, such as aggravated discharge of a firearm at or near a school and some felonies done in furtherance of gang activity, begin in juvenile court for those 15 or older, but if probable cause is found, they are transferred to adult court, Milhiser said.
Other crimes are called “presumptive transfers,” but can stay in juvenile court if that presumption is refuted and a judge agrees. If the defendant is 13 or older, the case can be transferred to adult court at the discretion of the juvenile court judge.
Milhiser said his office has the same number of prosecutors — three — handling delinquency cases and abuse and neglect cases in juvenile court as it did before the law went into effect. Two judges also continue to rotate in handling juvenile cases.
The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission last year released a two-year study of the impact of the misdemeanor change and recommended Illinois handle 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court.
Prior to the 2010 change, 17-year-olds were treated as adults in criminal court, while those 16 and under were juveniles.
“The juvenile court has demonstrated a proven ability to hold youth accountable while reforming their behavior,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative when Quinn signed the bill. “Young people receive age-appropriate services and continue their schooling and are far more likely to change behaviors for the better than they would if locked up in a prison far from their families.”
Clarke went on to say that the law is in line with research findings concerning the development of the adolescent brain, as well as having a sound fiscal basis.
“Juveniles, who are developmentally less competent than adults, can and do change behaviors and better decisions when they mature,” she said. “This legislation will help them make those changes sooner and not suffer setbacks that often happen to youth spending their days and nights in prison cells.”
The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Illinois House and Senate and had the support of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association and other groups.
Illinois joins 38 states that currently prosecute 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court.
Ilona Prieto Vila, Director