Children doing adult time because of a law made over a century ago

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Photo credit: banspy

It was a time that women couldn't vote. Scientists of the day used brain size and the first intelligence tests to determine that white people were biologically superior to all other races. People with mental illnesses were locked up in crude asylums, restrained to beds and given shock therapy in an attempt to cure them.

1906.

That was the year the Illinois legislature decided that 17-year-olds would be tried in adult court, not the juvenile justice systems that had been set up just years earlier.

One hundred years later, we have vastly different ideas
about how the world works. We know that children aren't born as tiny
adults - that they keep developing throughout their lives. That their
brains don't fully mature until their early 20s, particularly the frontal lobe, which controls decision making and impulse control.

But
despite that advancement in knowledge - despite the fact that we now
fly airplanes, get information at the speed of light, control the spread
of infections through antibiotics and vaccines - despite all that
progress, there's been no change for 17-year-olds who make one big
mistake.

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Derrick Reed, a Chicago teen convicted of drug possession and sentenced in adult court. Reed is one of nearly 3,000 17 year-olds tried in adult court in Illinois since 2006. Photo by Jon Lowenstein

Commit an adult crime, do adult time. That's what
today's teenagers are told from adults who've decided they aren't mature
enough to vote or even get a full drivers license, but they're old
enough to pay for mistakes they make.

And a lot of kids in
Chicago are paying with their lives. Years spent in adult prison after
pleading guilty to crimes like unlawful use of a weapon on school
grounds, aggravated battery, possession, robbery and theft take their
toll, transforming what was once a kid who made some bad choices into a
hardened criminal who will spend years away from society.

Are these 17-year-olds innocent angels? Not always. Butan  analysis by The Chicago Reporter's Angela Caputo
(pdf) shows these kids generally aren't going away for violent crimes.
Drugs, theft and robbery make up 76 percent of cases where 17-year-olds
are convicted and tried for felonies in adult court.

If a
surgeon said he would treat your medical condition with tools from 1906,
I doubt you'd get on the table. If a dentist wanted to fix your cavity
with a circa-1900 drill, there's not many who'd remain in the chair. If
your child's teacher was teaching history with a text book published in
1906, you'd be looking for a different school.

But thousands of
children are going away every year, losing years of their life,
and sending them to a facility that practically guarantees they'll come
out worse for wear. Why are we determining a child's outcome based on
our perceptions of brain development from 100 years ago? If these
kids were white and affluent, not poor black kids who are easily ignored
if they don't live in your neighborhood, would we have updated our law
books to reflect our modern values and knowledge?

For more on
what happens to these kids and how they end up in the system in the
first place, take a look at Angela's landmark investigation, Stolen Futures, in the September/October issue of the Reporter. Or join us tonight for our issue release party at M Lounge, 1520 S. Wabash, to get a free copy of the magazine and learn more about juvenile justice.

Check
back here for more pieces of the puzzle and to get insight, analysis
and information about the Chicago you care about that you can only get
here at the Reporter.

Comments

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  • Great piece. We've come so far on so many issues that to not advance on this cause seems terribly archaic, not to mention horribly wrong. Looking forward to reading all your posts to come. Just subscribed.

  • I do like the discusions here.But lets not start with another program,again.Many of these kids are just that kids.The system didn't fail them ,their parents failed them. Don't start with "it takes a village" crap.It takes a family.These problems didn't just start yesterday, has been coming for a long time.I don't have answers but I believe as a whole we will come up with an answer.Lets not throw more money at this and see what happens.Kids need guidence,love and discipline.All three.

  • In reply to waterbill:

    You are right. It all comes down to parenting--as so much does. (I still swear by licensing or educating all parents-to-be.) But, you can also let these kids learn from their mistake as any child should and move on...not take the heavy consequence of a fully matured adult.

  • In reply to waterbill:

    What's with your focus on programs? Who said anything about programs. Yes, their parents failed them. But is that their fault? Are we supposed to say that their parents failed them, so oh well, guess they end up in jail? Yes, families are the main way that children succeed in life, but when family fails you, through no fault of your own, are we just supposed to give up?

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