A series of heinous crimes committed by young people in the early 1980s spawned the idea of the super-predator. Seeing them as ruthless and unredeemable, politicians declared these young people would get adult time for adult crime.
Over the next two decades, this notion of using the adult criminal justice system to crack down on juvenile crime took hold. And Illinois was one of the states that led the way as legislators stretched the idea to cover a broad range of offenses, from murder to drug dealing near schools.
But recently attitudes have begun to shift. Lawmakers are now questioning both the philosophy behind these measures and the way they’re used.
This month, a legislative taskforce will begin meeting to examine the Illinois laws that transfer teens from juvenile to adult court. By the start of January’s legislative session, it will make recommendations on how the laws should be changed.
Among the pertinent facts lawmakers could consider: An overwhelming majority of Illinois teenagers transferred to adult court are black or Latino and live in Cook County, county and state records show. The disparity is even more pronounced than what’s found in the juvenile justice system, which also includes a disproportionate number of nonwhites.
And, contrary to popular belief, the majority of these teenagers are not accused of committing violent crimes. Most are first-time offenders.
When lawmakers were first confronted with the racial disparities a few years ago, they made a minor modification to the transfer laws pertaining to drug crimes. But new numbers suggest that the reform had a minimal effect.
Teenagers younger than 17 are regarded as minors in Illinois, and, when they’re charged with crimes, the vast majority of them are sent to juvenile court; most of those found guilty are considered juvenile delinquents. Just a small minority of 15- and 16-year-olds charged are transferred to adult court, also known as felony court.
But those who are—a few hundred a year statewide—go before judges in criminal courthouses and, if convicted, are considered felons with permanent criminal records. Unlike those who remain in the juvenile justice system, they can be sentenced to prison terms that stretch beyond their 21st birthdays.
In Illinois, teenagers can be transferred to felony court in several ways. In some cases, the law calls for transfer hearings to be held. But advocates have been most disturbed by automatic transfers—which bar judges from holding hearings on whether the cases should be sent back to juvenile court. Besides murder and drug dealing, automatically transferable crimes include armed robbery with a firearm, unlawful use of a weapon on school grounds and aggravated criminal sexual assault.
When it comes to transfer laws, Illinois stands out; no other state has as many ways for juveniles to end up in the adult system. And the automatic provisions are so open-ended that they entangle a wider range of offenders, according to a 2003 summary of state transfer laws by the Pittsburgh-based National Juvenile Justice Center.
Advocates say automatic transfer laws leave no room for considering the facts and circumstances of each case.
The laws also ignore national research: Scientists have determined that those younger than 16 do not fully understand the consequences of their actions.
In addition, criminologists have found that those charged in adult court are more likely to reoffend than those in juvenile court.
As it stands, the line lawmakers have drawn between the juvenile and adult systems is arbitrary, said Diane Geraghty, interim dean of the Loyola University Law School. “We must ask the question: Are they culpable in the same way an adult is culpable?” she said.
Steven A. Drizin, clinical law professor at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, noted that only a small percentage of the teenagers transferred are murderers or rapists, and that even those charged with heinous crimes are often bad decision-makers caught in bad situations, not bad kids.
“Currently the net is far too wide, and we are opening it far too many times,” he said.
Advocates, along with some Democratic lawmakers, are excited by the taskforce, seeing it as a chance to reform ill-conceived, biased laws.
Ideally, they’d like Illinois to eliminate its automatic transfer laws, or at least adopt a provision allowing teenagers the chance to ask a judge to return them to juvenile court.
But they acknowledge changing the law won’t be easy.
State Rep. Annazette Collins, a taskforce co-chair, said these laws are an example of how society too quickly gives up on teenagers—especially those from her West Side community, which has one of the highest numbers of juvenile transfers in the state. In addition, labeling teenagers as felons makes their job prospects bleaker, she said.
“As a society, we need to give these kids a second chance,” she said.
But state Rep. Patricia R. Bellock, a Republican from west suburban Hinsdale who will also serve on the taskforce, said she thinks serious offenses, such as violent crimes, belong in felony court.
“It’s very controversial treating juveniles as adults—some people say they are not capable of understanding the charges. On the other hand, there are these horrendous crimes committed by juveniles,” she said. “You have to go very carefully when you go into this realm—you don’t want the pendulum to swing from one side to the other.”
The difficulty in getting bipartisan support for changing the transfer laws was underscored in 2002, the last time it was attempted. Democratic state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie originally proposed that hearings should be held in all drug cases subject to the automatic transfer. Three amendments later, lawmakers agreed to a watered-down version of the bill, which allowed judges to hold such hearings in only low-level cases.
“Make no mistake about the fact that you could see a mail piece saying, ‘Representative A or Representative B has supported a bill that was viewed as being soft on crime, and on juveniles in particular,'” said Republican Tom Cross, according to a state transcript of deliberations on the bill. Cross, who represents far south suburban Plainfield, is now the House Republican Leader.
In the end, after a lengthy discussion and rewriting process, the law passed with 65 of 118 possible votes in the House and 43 of 59 in the Senate.
Lawmakers will also get pressured by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Police Department, the two agencies responsible for most of the state’s juvenile transfers. Officials from these agencies said they see how juvenile court might be appropriate for low-level drug crimes, but they strongly believe that gun and violent crimes belong in adult court.
Roberta Bartik, director of juvenile advocacy for the Chicago Police Department, said she’s “not really” in favor of amending the Illinois Juvenile Transfer Act. “The other offenses [besides drug crimes] are really serious, like murder,” she said.
Transferring juveniles to adult court actually protects them, Bartik said, because, if older gang members believe juveniles are receiving less punishment, the older gang members will try to exploit them.
She said data showing that many automatically transferred teenagers are first-time offenders may not tell the full story.
Bartik suspects that many, especially the violent offenders, have had run-ins with the police that didn’t rise to the level of arrests or charges. “For the most part, drug offenders may or may not have a background,” she said. “But the violent crimes often go hand in hand with gang involvement, and these kids tend to be very dangerous to themselves and the city.”
Jim McCarter, chief of delinquency for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, added juveniles should be tried in adult court if they commit crimes that the legislature has deemed should be judged there, particularly if they’re involved in gangs. “With gang activity, they are more likely to do it again, and the shooting is very random,” he said.
Hiram Hernandez and Marlon Marshall were each arrested for drug dealing before turning 17. Each was caught near a school—an automatically transferred offense.
But Hernandez was charged as an adult, while Marshall was charged as a juvenile.
Hernandez was taken to the Cook County criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue. It is a somber place where each day lines of shackled prisoners are led into holding cells. Almost 80,000 cases pass through the system each year.
At 15, Hernandez said, he was already a tough kid—but, when he found himself in jail, he was shaken. “It was just a bunch of big motherfuckers in there,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.” He just kept to himself to avoid trouble.
Eventually, Hernandez’s drug dealing case was dropped, and he left the court without getting any help. Hernandez, who followed his cousins into a gang, said he went back to his old ways.
He dropped out of school, and his mother “pretty much gave up” on him, he said. His father is dead.
Hernandez’ exit from the justice system did not last long. He racked up one assault charge as a juvenile. Soon after he became 18, he was charged with gun possession and burglary, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Released on parole in June, the 19-year-old said recently he doesn’t know what he would do with his life. Most days he spends his time riding his bike on Division Street in his West Side Humboldt Park neighborhood.
Sometimes Hernandez pops into a community organization, called Batey Urbano, which has programs for young people focusing on using the arts to help them express themselves.
Hernandez likes the setting, with “people doing shit,” but he is not into some of their activities.
“Poetry,” he said with a laugh, “that’s not for me.”
Meanwhile, Marshall, who lives in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side, said he began dealing in his early teens because he liked “looking good for the ladies and having a pocketful of money,” and he didn’t want to be a strain on his single mother. He smoked pot, drank and enjoyed himself every day.
He was 16 when he was picked up with 15 grams of heroin. Though he was near a school, he said, he wasn’t transferred to adult court. “I felt I caught a blessing,” he said.
Marshall waded his way through the juvenile court system, which is completely separate from the adult system. Founded a century ago, its philosophy dictates that teenagers should be treated differently from adults, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and social services.
Though happy not to be charged as an adult, Marshall vowed to turn himself around to avoid a future trip to jail. “I started thinking about it—I was 16, and, when you’re 17, you’re eligible for the county,” he said. “They gave me a chance to redeem myself.”
A juvenile court judge ordered him to report to the Westside Association for Community Action, an agency offering youth a daily structured program as an alternative to juvenile detention.
Marshall took it seriously: He completed the program and he kept coming back. At 20, he is now a paid staffer at the agency. Along the way, he finished high school with a 3.8 grade point average, and enrolled at Richard J. Daley City College.
“If they give you a chance and they reach out for you, you’ve got to do something,” Marshall said.
The stories of Marshall and Hernandez highlight one of the basic problems with Illinois’ automatic transfer laws, said Betsy Clarke, the president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy group.
On the surface, automatic transfers appear to remove bias from decisions about whether to send young people to adult court.
But Clarke, a juvenile justice advocate for 20 years, said the law puts more discretion in the hands of police and prosecutors.
For instance, they could choose to charge a teen with armed robbery, which is not automatically transferred, or armed robbery with a firearm, which is.
“It is these decisions on whether to charge crimes up or down that make the difference,” Clarke said.
And, unlike judges’ rulings, such decisions cannot be appealed, said Drizin.
“The problem is that prosecutorial discretion is unchecked, and a prosecutor also is a political player,” he said. “Judges get to hear both sides of the case.”
McCarter, from the state’s attorney’s office, said prosecutors do not make subjective decisions about how they charge people. They look at the facts in the case and then find the appropriate charge, he said.
The police department’s Bartik added, “We simply do what the law says is appropriate.”
But Clarke said evidence of prosecutor discretion shows up in the racial and geographic disparities.
Teens charged with murder or rape are likely to go to adult court, regardless of their race or class backgrounds, she said. But black and Latino teenagers from Chicago are far more likely to be charged as adults for crimes that lack a direct victim, she said.
Illinois Department of Corrections data analyzed by The Chicago Reporter back up Clarke’s assertion. There’s little statewide data on how the transfer act is applied. But teenagers 17 or younger who are convicted under such charges and sentenced to prison go to one of the state’s seven juvenile prisons, called Illinois Youth Centers, whether they are convicted in adult or juvenile court. Those convinced in adult court may be sent to other prisons as they grow older.
From 1999 to 2003, every juvenile who was admitted to a youth center on felony drug charges statewide was black and from Cook County, the data show. Also the only teenagers in prison on felony gun charges were black or Latino.
The disparity is not nearly as great for the juveniles serving time on murder and rape charges.
Thoughout the 1990s, only 12 of 101 counties in Illinois transferred more than 20 teenagers, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state agency that collects data about the justice system. In half that time, from 1996 to 1999, Cook County transferred 1,539 teenagers to adult court.
And, in Cook County, the racial dsiparity is stark. Black and Latino youth make up 60 percent of those under 17 in Cook County, but 86 percent of those charged in Cook County juvenile court and 99 percent of those transferred to adult court, according to census data, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative.
The initiative will release a study on automatic transfers at the first taskforce meeting on Oct. 18.
Such statistics disturb those in Chicago communities who work to help young people make a future for themselves.
“Simply being treated as adults when they’re children, no matter what they’ve done—that’s not what’s needed,” said Phillip Jackson, former head of the Chicago Housing Authority and current executive director of the Black Star Project, a national educational reform project based in Chicago.
“It is not natural for young people to be selling drugs or getting involved in violence. So rather than simply punishing that kind of occurrence, we recommend finding out why they did this kind of behavior,” Jackson added.
A key component of the automatically transferable drug laws–which account for 64 percent of the cases transferred—remains unfair, advocates say.
In 1985, during the height of concern about crack cocaine, state lawmakers passed a provision that sent to adult court any 15- or 16-year-old caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, public housing complex, church, park or other public facilities.
Advocates argued the city’s density, compared with rural or suburban communities, made Chicago teens into targets. Furthermore, the drug trade in the city happens in an open-air market. Standing on corners, waiting for customers, city drug dealers are easy marks for police.
Studies have shown that white suburban teenagers are just as apt, if not more, to use drugs as black city kids, but police have said the difference is that they buy and sell inside homes, hidden from the view of law enforcement.
The concerns of advocates turned out to be warranted. In a 2000 article, the Reporter found that virtually all the teenagers charged in drug cases in Cook County adult court were black or Latino.
And the disparity still exists. The difference is that, in 2003, African Americans made up a little more of the whole, while Latinos made up a little less, according to a Reporter analysis of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk records.
Still, the amendment that allows judges to waive back some drug-related cases from adult to juvenile court has helped some teens, said Elizabeth Kooy, a research and policy advocate for the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative who was given special permission to look at the files of Cook County teenagers charged as adults. Almost all the requests from defense attorneys to send teens back to juvenile court have been granted, Kooy said, including 32 from Cook County since the change went into effect in January 2003.
And the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative’s report shows that charges were dropped in 38 percent of the 191 drug cases adjudicated since the change in the law—a figure that indicates to Kooy that teens are being charged without enough evidence for conviction.
But more disturbing to Kooy, who authored the report, is that 43 percent of the teenagers were convicted, mostly through guilty pleas.
Those charged with Class X drug felonies, she notes, are not eligible to be waived back. Class X felonies, determined by the type of drug and its weight, are the most serious and carry long sentences. The category, for instance, applies to anyone carrying 15 to 100 grams of powder cocaine.
Cook County Circuit Court records show few teens were convicted of Class X felonies, but Kooy suspects many faced those charges originally and then pled guilty to lesser charges.
“The public defenders I’ve talked to say that [teenagers not wanting to wait for trials] are a real problem,” said Kooy, a former social worker in the Cook County Public Defender’s office.
“The kids just want to get it over with so they plead out,” she added.
Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, calls Illinois’ drug transfer law “a felony-making machine for young blacks in Cook County.”
The recent reforms only temper his criticism a bit.
“This is the worst of both worlds,” he said. “They’re either sending them back, or giving them felony convictions. You’re not even getting this tough-on-crime stuff this was intended for. These are low-level shlumps.”
Addie Young’s experience has led her to conclude the process is unfair. Her 16-year-old son, Kenny, was charged as an adult for drug dealing in June and three months later sent back to juvenile court, where he awaits trial.
Young said prosecutors encouraged Kenny to plead guilty during his time in adult court, but she refused to let him. “The police did not find any drugs on him,” said Young, a factory worker who lives in an apartment in North Lawndale. “He just had money on him because he was walking to the store to buy some gym shoes. He likes to save his allowance to buy gym shoes.”
While cases in the juvenile court take between one to three months to be adjudicated, it takes longer for a case to snake its way through the adult court system. Families seeking waiver hearings can also face delays; Kenny traveled to the criminal courthouse four times over a period of two months.
In Kenny’s reverse waiver hearing, the public defender quickly explained to Judge John J. Fleming that Kenny had never been in trouble with the law before. The assistant state’s attorney half-heartedly muttered that, in the interest of public safety, the prosecutor’s office opposed the reverse waiver.
Fleming replied that he disagreed, and told Kenny to be at the juvenile courthouse on Monday morning.
Late for a football game, Kenny’s rushed out of the court more annoyed at the hours he spent waiting for the short hearing than relieved that he had managed to avoid a criminal conviction.
Young said the experience left her son with resentment toward the police. “The police see all these kids as gang bangers and drug dealers, but they are not all like that. Some of them are good kids.”
While Young is relieved, Sandy Sandurs’ son is stuck in adult court, charged with selling enough drugs for a Class X felony. Sandurs said her son was visiting his father on the West Side when he was arrested. At her house on the South Side, she said, she is strict, and he would not have been out on the street. She said what troubles her is that, while the city’s police department is quick to arrest her son, the city programs to help him seem to have disappeared.
When she was a teenager, she remembers lining up for a city-sponsored summer job program. Everyone in line would get employed, she said.
But, this year, she looked all over to find her son a job, calling places and going to the library to fill out applications online.
“But I couldn’t get him one,” she said. “Now look where we are ending up.”
Advocates and lawmakers are clearly focusing their efforts on re-examining the automatic transfer laws for drug dealing. But some stress that even violent offenders could be helped by the juvenile justice system. At the very least, they argue, each of these teens deserves a hearing to make sure that the adult courthouse is the right place for them.
For one, advocates say, the number of such cases is small, so the system wouldn’t be overburdened if it examined the circumstances of each one before deciding where it belongs.
“There’s just not that many juveniles committing homicides or anything else to automatically try them as adults,” Schiraldi said. “Juveniles are young, and we need to look them in the eye and make an individual decision about them.”
Northwestern’s Drizin and others point out that many of the more serious crimes committed by teenagers—including armed robbery and aggravated assault with a gun—are typically committed in groups. Illinois law calls for charging accomplices the same as the people who actually committed the crimes—which can result in devastating consequences for easily influenced juveniles.
One case in particular, advocates say, underscores this point. In 1997, two 15-year-olds served as lookouts as two older gang members killed two rivals at the Lathrop Homes public housing development on the North Side. After separate trials, one of the teens was acquitted, while the other, Leon Miller, was found guilty of first-degree murder and was given life in prison without parole.
On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court reduced the sentence to 50 years with possibility of parole. Deborah Israel, the assistant appellate defender who represented Miller, said she doesn’t think most young people understand that serving as a lookout or riding in a car someone shoots out of can have such severe consequences.
“They don’t know what they are facing,” she said. “The legal system is difficult to understand at any age, especially when you are young.”
Teens often do things in groups, and this is surely the case with gang activity. Juvenile advocates, prosecutors and police agree the strong, often brutal presence of gangs in Chicago might help explain why nonwhite teenagers from the city are more likely to end up with felony charges.
In addition to considering the role of the offender in the crime, others think the court system should gauge whether the juvenile can be reformed.
This idea, however, is controversial in murder cases. While advocates are trying to save one child, another has already been slain.
McCarter from the state’s attorney’s office says that, while most of the offenders are poor black and Latino kids, so are the victims.
This was the case in 2002, when Maurice Davis, a top Englewood Academy High School student and basketball player, was shot and killed after a fight. Anger and sympathy for his family overflowed.
Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at Davis’ funeral, calling him a role model. The daily newspapers gave it prominent coverage; Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey described the shooting as the work of a coward. And Davis’ family members openly talked about their grief and anger.
“As for my life, it was totally destroyed,” wrote Annie Liggins, Davis’ grandmother, in a statement submitted to the court. “I still cry and I will continue to cry for a long time.”
But Palatine defense attorney Kevin Milner, who represented Davis’ killer, Xavier Edwards, said he had the potential to become a productive member of society, though Milner doubts the system will allow it to happen.
Earlier this year, Edwards, convicted of second-degree murder, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
“When I met this kid, I just couldn’t believe he would be capable of what he was accused of and eventually convicted of,” Milner said. In court filings, Milner argued that Edwards wasn’t a gang member and didn’t have a criminal record. “Based on his age and his intelligence, I think he’d have been a prime candidate for juvenile rehabilitation. He is going to go in now at 16 and come out a much, much different person.”
These cases are emotionally intense on all sides, said Gina Piemonte, a Cook County public defender who represents violent offenders.
This was clear one morning in September, when one of Piemonte’s clients, Jarail Stoutmire, 16, walked into a first-floor county courtroom. Just a week before, in late August, Stoutmire had allegedly shot to death Keanna Mattox, 15.
According to police, a fight had broken out at the end of a party in the Rockwell Gardens public housing development. To settle it, police said, Stoutmire fired a gun into a crowd. His shot allegedly hit Mattox in the stomach.
Separated from the court proceedings by a glass wall, the mothers of the two teenagers sat listening, one on each side of an aisle between the courtroom’s wooden benches.
As soon as Stoutmire walked in, both mothers sprang to their feet. Stoutmire’s moved toward the glass, but was met by a sheriff’s deputy who told her she couldn’t get any closer.
“But he’s a minor,” she pleaded.
At the same time, Mattox’s mother called out: “I want him to look in my eyes. I want him to see me.”
After a short back-and-forth between Stoutmire’s public defender and the judge, the teenager nodded at his mother as sheriff’s deputies escorted him away.
Stoutmire’s mother, visibly upset, didn’t want to talk about the situation. Mattox’s 19-year-old sister, Marquita, said she thought felony was appropriate for Stoutmire.
“If you put yourself in the position where you do adult things and you don’t think about them, you should have to go to adult court,” she said. “Maybe others will hear about this and think before they do something like shooting into a crowd.”
Angela Caputo and Efren Arcos helped research this article.