By Monique Garcia
A package of new laws taking effect Friday aims to keep more juveniles out of the prison system, including changes that stop youths from being detained for misdemeanor crimes and give judges more discretion on whether teens should be tried as adults.
An additional measure eliminates mandatory life sentences for minors convicted of murder, while another seeks to keep children younger than 13 out of the justice system altogether by attempting to place them with community service providers instead of a juvenile detention facility.
The new laws represent a rare area of compromise between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who rule the General Assembly, two sides locked in an ideological battle over workers' rights that has left the state operating without a complete budget since July 1.
The common ground, however, was forged for very different reasons as policymakers across the country re-examine a legal system that for decades centered on a tough-on-crime mentality that saw prison populations explode along with the corresponding cost of prosecuting and housing offenders. The desire to focus on diversion and rehabilitation programs normally backed by more liberal Democrats is now aligned with the historically conservative push to cut operating costs.
Indeed, one of the top policy initiatives Rauner announced upon taking office nearly a year ago was a goal of reducing the state's prison population by 25 percent within 10 years. The Illinois Department of Corrections reports 46,052 inmates in custody. A panel of law enforcement officials, lawmakers, community activists and court administrators is weighing how to cut that number, and the changes to the juvenile justice system represent the first steps toward changing how the state handles offenders.
"There has been a recognition that our system of justice needs to be more just and less retribution-focused," said Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove. "And I think this area has been ripe for compromise because of the new way everyone is looking at crime and punishment and the literal cost for society, and what society pays for that path."
A key new law aims to keep more teens and youngsters out of the general prison system by no longer requiring judges to automatically transfer more serious cases to adult criminal court.
Currently, minors 15 and older are tried as adults if they are charged with any of five serious crimes: first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery with a firearm, armed robbery with a firearm or aggravated vehicular hijacking with a firearm. Further, any juvenile already tried and convicted in adult criminal court automatically gets tried as an adult for subsequent offenses in a practice commonly referred to as "once an adult, always an adult."
Under the new law, those younger than 16 will begin in juvenile court regardless of the charge. Additionally, the scope narrowed to three charges that result in automatic trial as an adult for minors 16 and older: first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm. Meanwhile, minors previously convicted as adults would no longer be automatically transferred to adult court.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who led efforts to change the law, said the move is aimed at recognizing that teens don't have the mental capacity to make decisions like an adult and to help divert them from a life of rotating in and out of prison.
"Anyone who can remember their teenage years or knows a teenager knows teens are impulsive. They don't think of the consequences of their actions," Preckwinkle said. "Knowing about teenage behavior told us that it was the right thing to do, to create a separate system to keep juveniles focused on rehabilitation for everything except the most serious crimes."
The law also is intended to give judges more flexibility in sentencing minors by allowing them to take into consideration a number of factors not previously weighed, including a minor's age and cognitive ability, home life, degree of participation in a crime, criminal history and potential for rehabilitation. Judges would be allowed to give tougher sentences based on whether a gun was used of if the crime was committed against a police officer, corrections worker or paramedic.
"We need to shift to a more individualized assessment of an offender," said sponsoring Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago. "Anybody who is charged and convicted is not the same as someone else charged. The facts are different, the background is different, the culpability can be different. So when you tie a judge's hands, the judge can't say if this kid would be better served if kept in juvenile court."
Along the same lines, another law would do away with mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. The measure is in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that sentencing minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution.
Judges still would have the option of imposing a life sentence, but they also must consider mitigating factors that might result in a lesser sentence. Those factors include maturity level, history of neglect and whether an offender was subject to peer or familial pressure, as well as past crimes and expressions of remorse.
"There are kids who anecdotally at least are presented to us so differently by victims' families when they arrive in that court room," said sponsoring Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. "Some are horrible and irredeemable and should be in jail the rest of their lives. Then there are other kids who were abused and battered and subjected to such a bad way of life you'd be shocked if they could make a good decision, but they redeem themselves in prison.
"We don't want every juvenile to be sentenced to life in prison without any chance of hope," Harmon said. "We need that discretion to prove that you can be part of the community, and the judge needs to be able to make those decisions."
Meanwhile, a companion measure carried by Raoul would stop young offenders from being sent to a juvenile detention facility for misdemeanor crimes such as theft, marijuana possession, battery or trespassing. The change is intended to ensure that teens and young adults don't face a tougher punishment for minor crimes than adults currently face.
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice estimates the change will save more than $4.5 million, based on an average of 110 juveniles admitted each year on misdemeanor charges. The agency says it costs about $305 a day to house each misdemeanor offender in a state facility, with the average stay about 135 days.
A fourth law seeks to keep the youngest out of the corrections system altogether by requiring officials to first try to place children under 13 with a community-based youth service provider instead of holding them at a detention center. The measure is intended to reach those most able to change through counseling and other programs instead of grouping them in with older teens at detention facilities.
Rauner signed all four bills into law. "It's important to constantly evaluate the state's rehabilitation system in order to reduce recidivism, which will improve public safety and save taxpayer money," Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.
While the changes represent small steps toward a larger overhaul of the state's criminal justice system, lawmakers say they believe they're a positive development not only in how the state approaches crime but also in how Democrats and Republicans could work together during a new period of divided government.
"They are different silos, but this could be a model for compromise in other areas," Harmon said. "I doubt that it translates to the core issues surrounding the budget, but you never know."
(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune