Report Says Prosecution of Minors as Adults Has Poor Outcomes

juvenile justice

An independent advocacy non-profit has concluded that a piece of legislation dating to 1982 and dubbed the “automatic transfer law,” which compels children ages of 15 or 16 charged with certain felony offenses to be charged as an adult, has significantly problematic consequences that go beyond discouraging rehabilitation and positive development of those sentenced.

The 21-page report by the Juvenile Justice Initiative calls for Illinois to leave it up to juvenile court judges’ to decide whether a child under 18 should be charged in adult court or not. The report, which focused on Cook County – which includes Chicago – laid out data found by following 257 children under the age of 17, who were held in juvenile detention court in Cook but prosecuted and sentenced in adult court from January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2012.

Elizabeth Clarke
Elizabeth Clarke

Elizabeth Clarke, president and founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said she was “shocked” by the findings of their study, which demonstrated that 90 percent of automatic transfer cases were guilty pleas, and often these minors received neither a trial nor a court plea.

“Even research from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) shows that children sentenced in adult court are 38 percent more likely to commit a crime than those who stay in juvenile court,” Clarke said. “The persistence of an automatic transfer law perpetuates these vicious cycles of violence that leaves a terrible scar on communities.”

Data from the study revealed that more than half of the juvenile cases tried in adult court result in convictions of lesser offenses that do not make automatic transfers necessary in the first place.

The study calls Illinois’ juvenile justice procedures “contrary to youth development research” because it doesn’t take into account the fact that youth are more prone to impulsive and risky behavior, and that that delinquent conduct can be a phase rather than a permanent indicator of a growing youth’s character and future. Once children have an adult criminal record, educational and employment opportunities that can facilitate rehabilitation become more difficult to obtain.

Illinois is one of 14 states that still follows an automatic transfer law, and the United States is the only country that allows automatic transfer of juveniles to be charged and convicted as adults.

“This outdated legislation goes against international human rights laws and putting children in adult courts should be seen more as a last resort option,” Clarke said.

By not allowing automatic transfer to be the norm, the report urges those to abandon the outdated practice to protect victims, children and taxpayers more effectively than it does now.

“Like other states, Illinois should leave it up to the juvenile court judges to determine whether children should be sentenced in adult court,” Clarke said.

The following film was prepared by Alicia Healy and the Juvenile Justice Initiative:

The following is an OpEd piece written by Gretchen McDowell, the JJI’s Board Chair and past president of the Illinois Parent Teacher Association, which originally ran in The State Journal-Register here.

Recognizing that children are different than adults, Illinois started the first juvenile court in the country in 1899. Within 25 years nearly every state had one, and the idea spread internationally, too.

More than 30 years ago, these protections were eroded by “automatic transfer” laws that send youth offenders to adult court based solely on age and charge. Illinois is one of only 14 states that do this.

These automatic adult trial laws are unfair and do not protect the public.

First, when our state processes youth through adult criminal courts, it sends them into harsh justice and corrections systems that deny them the possibility of growing up and living normal lives.

These laws look only at age and charged offense. They fail to take into consideration differences between youth and adults, and they fail to consider individual characteristics, such as mental health, education, family and other background information.

This contradicts the purpose of juvenile court — to make individual determinations about youth and rehabilitate them accordingly.
Second, the mandatory exclusion policy actually decreases public safety. A recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Justice examined the paths of youth charged with similar crimes and found that juvenile offenders sent to adult prison were more likely to reoffend than those who remained in the juvenile system.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, has proposed a solution. House Bill 4538 would provide discretion to juvenile court judges to hear evidence and decide whether prosecuting a youth in adult criminal court is the right thing to do.

In fact, Illinois already grants juvenile judges this ability for all crimes that are not automatically excluded from juvenile court. This proposed statute sets forth factors that the juvenile judge must consider in determining whether to transfer the individual juvenile to adult court, including the youth’s age, previous offenses, abuse or neglect, mental health issues, circumstances surrounding the offense and the advantages of treatment in the juvenile justice system.

These are the same factors the U.S. Supreme Court considers essential in determining the sentence of a juvenile.

Under Nekritz’s proposal, this individualized approach would be applied to all charges brought against juveniles. Any juvenile offender over 13 who should be prosecuted in adult criminal court would still be sent there if a juvenile judge makes that determination.

But, again, there are juveniles who would be better served by the juvenile justice system — for instance, a youth not charged with a crime himself but charged by association for the actions of his acquaintance. The juvenile court judge would be able to take this into account when deciding whether the youth should remain in juvenile court or be sent to adult criminal court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has told us that criminal laws that fail to take into account a defendant’s youthfulness are flawed. It is time for Illinois to listen and end mandatory exclusion for good.


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  1. Dave

    How about correcting past mistakes and release Rick? -> Rick Wershe, better known to the public as “White Boy Rick”, is currently serving a life prison sentence in the Michigan Department of Corrections for a single drug possession conviction from January 1988. When he was arrested he was only 17 years old. Newly uncovered evidence proves he was led into the life of being a teenage drug dealer by the federal government. Rick was recruited by a narcotics task force made up by the FBI, DEA, and several Detroit Police Department detectives in 1984 as a 14 year old juvenile, encouraged to drop out of high school and eventually put to work as a paid undercover operative in some of the state’s most dangerous criminal organizations for the next three years.
    Following his conviction, he was sentenced under Michigan’s ultra-tough “650-Lifer Law”, a law erased from the books in 1998, allowing him to be eligible for parole.In the three times before the parole board in the last decade, he’s been rejected every time. As of 2012, he was the only minor sentenced under that law in the whole Michigan prison system that remains behind bars. He is also the only person in the country convicted as a minor for a non violent crime facing the prospect of serving a life sentence.
    In the 25 years Rick has been incarcerated, he has cooperated with law enforcement extensively. Prosecutors have said that without his help, the largest police corruption case in Detroit’s history would not have been possible. Some of the people ending up being convicted included members of Coleman Young’s family.
    Rick’s situation doesn’t feel right in many ways. This site will hopefully educate people who are unfamiliar with his situation , however isn’t intended for “fans” to glamorize or endorse his behavior.
    Once a boy who made a mistake, Rick is now simply a man in his mid-40’s in search of a second chance.

    This is a letter from a retired Detroit police officer to the Michigan Parole Board in June, 2012. ->

    This is a letter to the Michigan Parole Board from a former FBI agent who worked directly with Rick Wershe when he was working undercover for them and the Detroit Police Department. He is someone who knows the truth and is not afraid to speak up. ->