|(Northwest Herald photo illustration)|
A state law placing 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors under the juvenile court system makes legal sense to local defense attorney Matt Haiduk.
Considering that a 17-year-old is not old enough to vote, buy cigarettes and alcohol or even agree to a plea agreement without a parent or guardian's permission, the statute needed an update.
"At least now it's more consistent," said Haiduk, who worked in the McHenry County Public Defender's Office from 2001 to 2003 before starting his own firm. He continues to represent juvenile defendants.
It's been more than a year since Illinois joined 33 states in placing youths up to age 17 under the juvenile court's jurisdiction. In McHenry County, as of June, there were 16 minors on informal diversion, and 12 are in formal juvenile court. These minors were 17 when they were charged with misdemeanors.
Before the 2010 law, the Illinois criminal justice system dealt with 17-year-old who commited misdemeanors as adults and youths 16 and younger as juveniles.
That meant a 17-year-old could be sent to an "adult jail" with hardened criminals, a "whole different environment" from a juvenile detention facility, said Jeanne Swanson, director of delinquency intervention programs for Youth Service Bureau of McHenry County, a division of the Pioneer Center for Human Services.
Proponents also pointed out that a 17-year-old's misdemeanor charge and subsequent court proceedings were made public record, affecting future prospects for employment or college.
"Seventeen-year-olds are not adults, mentally or emotionally," said Susan Krause, Youth Service Bureau executive director.
In a report by the Campaign for Youth Justice, 15 states in the past five years have made changes to laws affecting minors in the criminal justice system. And at least nine states began efforts to make those changes into law.
According to the report released this year, "State Trends: Legislative Changes from 2005-2010 Removing Youth from the Adult Criminal Justice System," four types of trends are at play nationwide:
• More states and local jurisdictions are removing youth from adult jails and prisons;
• States are raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction;
• States are changing laws to keep more youth in juvenile court; and
• States are considering new sentencing laws for youth.
The juvenile system comes with greater flexibility, providing more options for a more “individualized approach,” said Phil Dailing, McHenry County director of court services. In addition, the courts must protect these 17-year-olds’ misdemeanor files from becoming public record.
Some minors are referred to a counseling-based program, rather than being put through the formal court system. Referral to this “diversion” program is based on a set of criteria including the individual’s criminal history, Dailing said.
Others can be held at a juvenile detention facility in St. Charles in Kane County during court proceedings or get sent to the state's juvenile justice center, an alternative to adult sentencing. In juvenile court, the focus is to keep families together and rehabilitate young offenders.
"The idea is that if a community can help address the root causes, there's a good possibility that they will never offend again," Krause said.
Misdemeanors vary, from battery to minor theft to underage drinking. Before the law took effect, a 17-year-old charged with a misdemeanor could have faced up to a year in jail, said McHenry County Assistant State's Attorney Bill Stanton, who oversees the juvenile delinquency and felony review divisions.
Stanton said it's still early for the McHenry County court system to “make a call” on the law’s impact.
“Cases haven’t been around long enough to come up with empirical data [showing whether the law] is working in terms of recidivism,” he said.
Felony cases remain under the jurisdiction of the county’s adult court system.
Initially, prosecutors were worried that the law would lead to an influx of cases to their office, McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi said.
Early in the transition, jailers sometimes weren’t sure whether to detain certain 17-year-old offenders in jail or send them to juvenile detention in Kane County. McHenry County does not have a detention facility for juveniles.
“We had three lawyers on call 24 hours,” Bianchi said.
Meanwhile, because probationary terms last two years, the court system soon will be working with 19-year-olds as juveniles, Dailing said.
“Now that we have more youth at the transitional age range, we’re going to have to find ways to provide effective ways to hold them accountable in age-appropriate ways and deal with their risk factors that caused them to re-offend,” Dailing said.
The Youth Service Bureau has been serving youths up to the age of 21. But Krause and Swanson have been concerned with the statewide funding cuts to social service agencies.
“I feel that the current state of the economy and unemployment has driven more people to our doors than the law change,” Krause said. “ … From our perspective, as a community-based program, our major concern is that we’ve had several programs that received funding from the state [be] eliminated."
The agency is scrambling to secure alternative funding sources after the state slashed funding for its after-school Day Reporting Center for the 2012 fiscal year. Counselors work with 25 juvenile offenders, most of whom are court-ordered to undergo the program, to help them address issues tied to their criminal pattens. It costs the agency about $130,000 to run the program every year. Meanwhile, Swanson points out, it costs taxpayers about $70,000 to house one minor in a juvenile detention facility for a year.
Although the law change in 2010 was a step in the right direction, Haiduk is worried that shrinking funds for juvenile probationary and remedial programs will reverse the trend.
"Less counseling could be ordered in the future because of less funding," he said.