State commission: 17-year-olds should be charged as minors, not adults

State commission: 17-year-olds should be charged as minors, not adults
Seventeen-year-old Jemarco Baldon returns to the criminal court building at 26th Street and California Avenue for yet another court appearance on a felony drug charge. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Are 17-year-olds adults, or not? The answer is murky in Illinois.

If they’re the victim of a crime, 17-year-olds are considered kids. The same goes if they break curfew, are charged with a misdemeanor, like marijuana possession, or try to buy cigarettes or vote. But when it comes to felonies, the teens are adults. Period. That could soon change, though.

Members of Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Commission cleared the first hurdle Wednesday in amending the law by agreeing unanimously to recommend bumping 17-year-olds down to the juvenile courts for a vast majority of their felony crime convictions. Doing so would bring Illinois in line with most states across the nation; only 10 automatically transfer 17-year-olds to the adult courts.

No part of the state would be more impacted than Cook County where more than 4,300 teens have become felons since 2007. In our latest investigation, “Minor misconduct,” we dug into the sort of crimes that the teens are charged with and found that well over half were convicted on no-violent offenses—mainly drug dealing or possession.

That’s not entirely surprising considering that most of the teen felons are from Chicago neighborhoods where poverty runs deep. Eight of every 10 of the teens are African American.

The commission’s official recommendation will be sent on to the legislature in January, just as a new slate of lawmakers is sworn in. State Sen. Kwame Raoul told us earlier this fall that it’s too soon to predict if his colleagues will be warm to the proposal. “There are folks who don’t want to appear soft on crime,” he said.

But do the laws make us any safer? We’ll be debating that with some our sources from our latest investigation on The Barbershop Show, this Friday on Vocalo.org or 89.5FM. We’d love to hear what you think. You can leave us your thoughts in the comments below, on Facebook or Twitter.

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