House bill in the works to keep teens out of adult court

by Lily Bohlke
Public News Service

(SPRINGFIELD, IL) - A bill pending in the Illinois House of Representatives would bring misdemeanor cases against older teenagers to juvenile court rather than adult court.

House Bill 111 would allow emerging adults to be considered "delinquent minors" and adjudicated in the juvenile system up to their 19th birthday.

Lael Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at the Columbia University Justice Lab, said 18 is an arbitrary age to start bringing teens into adult court.

Photo by Niu Niu/Unsplash
She pointed out young people go through a tremendous period of growth in their mid 20s, and argued not only can young people be particularly vulnerable in the adult court and prison system, but it affects the rest of their lives.

"When you are applying to college, when you have jobs, and they ask you if you've been convicted of a crime, you haven't been convicted, you've been adjudicated," Chester explained. "And it really provides young people with the opportunity to get their feet in the ground."

Chester emphasized Illinois is on the cutting edge, but it's not the first state to take this step. Starting July of last year, 18-year-olds in Vermont began entering the juvenile system for misdemeanors.

Chester noted focusing on emerging adults is one way advocates hope to reduce racial disparities in the justice system.

"Racial disparities are prevalent throughout the justice system at all ages," Chester contended. "But actually 18- and 19-year-olds have by far the highest racial disparities of any age group in the justice system."

Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, sponsored similar legislation in the Senate and said she plans to move forward with the House bill if and as soon as it passes.

She added there are many reasons young people commit misdemeanor offenses, and the juvenile system is better suited to find out how to help kids have successful and healthy futures.

"In the juvenile system, there are more opportunities for services," Fine remarked. "And sometimes these kids need services instead of severe punishment."

Recent research has shown when people are not arrested and prosecuted for nonviolent misdemeanors, they're less likely to offend again, especially if it's the first time they encounter the justice system.