Imagine you're 17 years old, sitting in a prison cell. You were arrested on a felony charge, but your family can't afford to post bond, so you're waiting here, waiting to see what will happen to you.
Maybe you're guilty, but maybe you're innocent. All you know is that the public defender said that if you plead guilty, you'll probably get two years. Maybe even probation. But if you say you're innocent and lose, it could mean losing six years of your life to prison time.
That's the situation that almost 3,000 17-year-olds found themselves in in Illinois since 2006. Illinois is one of 12 states that try 17-year-olds charged with felonies as adults, a law enacted and not changed since 1906.
would you do? I think I'd plead. And an analysis by reporter Angela
Caputo says they do exactly that. In fact, 99 percent of all 17
year-olds pleaded guilty.
The average sentence? About three years. But one offender got 33.
Perhaps the most troubling fact is where these kids come from
(pdf). I don't think anyone expects they're hailing from the McMansions
of Winnetka and Naperville. But they essentially come from just five
Chicago neighborhoods - Austin, North Lawndale, West Englewood,
Humboldt Park and Roseland. Take a look at this map:
These five neighborhoods have some of the highest long-term
unemployment rates in the country and a lot of low-income families.
makes you wonder if these kids even have a chance. Derrick Reed, who we
mentioned yesterday, was born addicted to crack. His mom had around a
dozen drug-addicted children, all who ended up being taken away from
her. His dad? He sold drugs. Is it really any wonder he ended up
another teen profiled by Caputo, was a great kid - no record, good
grades, after school activities. But he carried a gun because it wasn't
safe for him to walk to school. When officials found that gun, he was
charged with a felony - unlawful use of a weapon on school grounds.
After serving two months, he was shot to death five months later in a
parking lot, walking to a birthday party.
of these kids plead guilty. It may be a good decision at the time,
granting them many additional years of freedom, but it also means
serious future consequences. Finding a job will be incredibly
difficult. They'll never have access to federally-funded education
loans, be eligible for military service or qualify for public housing.
Finding their way out of a life of crime and into a productive future
will be a serious challenge.
When a child is born addicted to
drugs, living in a high-crime, high-poverty neighborhood with few job
prospects and lousy schools, can we be surprised when he or she ends up
in the criminal justice system?
But there's an even larger question at stake: once they are in, is there a way out?