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Editorial: Raise age for charging youths as adults

House Majority Leader BarbarFlynn Currie (D-Chicago) news conference after Governor PQuinn signed new law increase transparency Pensisystem Monday June 18

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) at news conference after Governor Pat Quinn signed a new law to increase transparency of Pension system, Monday, June 18, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 26, 2013 6:08AM

In Illinois, a 17-year-old goof caught shoplifting a $150 iPod Touch, a misdemeanor theft, is charged as a juvenile.

If the same 17-year-old goof steals a $400 iPhone, a felony theft, he is charged as an adult.

That makes no sense. The goof is no more or less a juvenile vs. an adult just because the one crime is a misdemeanor and the other a felony. His teenage brain and teenage judgment and teenage impulse control are no more or less developed.

Either way, he’s still 17, that squishy age on the cusp of adulthood when biologists and societal norms say a person can’t be fully trusted or held fully accountable for his actions. That’s why we don’t allow 17-year-olds to vote, buy Lottery tickets or sign up for a credit card. That’s why they need parental permission before they can pierce their ears.

And that’s why a proposed state law that says 17-year-old offenders should be adjudicated as juveniles even when charged with felonies, with some exceptions, is an important and overdue reform.

“Children are rash, they operate without strong judgment,” House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of the bill, told us. “Juvenile Court has resources for people found in violation of the law that are just not available in adult court.”

A juvenile criminal record can be expunged. An adult record follows the offender for life.

In passing this measure, Illinois would join a national trend, one driven by a growing body of research that says 17-year-olds not only are less fully responsible than adults, but also more capable of growth and change. Thirty-eight states have settled on age 18 as the “bright line” separating juveniles from adults in criminal proceedings, and the courts are moving in the same direction.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute an offender for a crime — no matter how serious — committed before age 18. In 2011, the court ruled it is unconstitutional to sentence an offender under age 18 to life in prison without parole for any crime short of homicide. In 2012, the court ruled that offenders under age 18 can’t be sentenced to mandatory life in prison — with no room for a judge to make an exception — for any crime, even homicide.

Because 17-year-olds are still developing, the court wrote in the 2005 decision, they “are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of ‘irretrievable depraved character’ than are the actions of adults.”

The proposed Illinois law has been five years in the making. In 2010, the Illinois General Assembly approved juvenile status for 17-year-olds who are picked up for misdemeanors. If subsequent research showed that this change did not create an undue burden on the state’s juvenile justice system or put the public at risk, the Legislature said, it would consider approving juvenile status, as well, for the approximately 4,000 17-year-olds charged with felonies each year.

The research is in. The 2010 law has worked fine. A study released last month by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission concluded that juvenile crime has declined sharply and juvenile detention centers have not been overrun. Sheriffs and state’s attorneys complain that the “bifurcated” law — treating some 17-year-olds as juveniles and others as adults — created bureaucratic confusion.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and County Board President Tony Preckwinkle favor the new proposal. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, a spokesperson said, is “neutral.” The Illinois State’s Attorneys Association takes no position.

It’s important to stress that juvenile offenders as young as 15 still could be transferred to adult court for violent crimes such as armed robbery and murder. That’s the law now and it would not change.

And it’s important to stress that juvenile court is hardly a “slap on the wrist,” a widespread misperception. Probation requirements in juvenile court, for example, are much more strict than in adult court.

But here’s the bottom line: A typical 17-year-old falls just short of adulthood in many ways.

“Young people can be incredibly clever and clueless at the same time,” the Juvenile Justice Commission’s report states. “Even the most responsible teenagers have a combustible combination of youth, opportunity and still-developing judgment.”

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