I would have preferred a direct flight. But on my vacation several weeks ago, the cheapest flight to Barcelona, Spain, required a two-day layover in Helsinki. I had never been, never wanted to go and likely never would have gone to Finland. I hate the cold. But I’m glad I did.
In a world of Nordic blue-eyed blondes is a criminal justice system that the Finnish boast as having one of the three lowest recidivism rates in the world. Why? Apparently, the maximum sentence for any crime there is 12 years. Yes, even for murder.
It didn’t make sense to me, either, until I talked to some of the locals. They explained that, while the system is not perfect, it’s intended to give people opportunity, a hope. The thinking is that, if people are given a chance to redeem themselves for their crime, they will. After serving their time, they can immediately get a job, go to college—which is entirely free, including Ph.D. programs—and raise a family, including paid parental leave of up to three years.
I returned to Chicago miffed about our own reform efforts. In a system with an exasperatingly high recidivism rate, an increasing number of youth are getting slapped with the label “felon,” and their cases are adjudicated through adult courts, not in the juvenile system.
But do we care about their opportunity? Does our reform system need reform?
Illinois used to be a leader in juvenile justice reforms 100 years ago, but today Chicago leads the top 10 largest cities with the most 17-year-olds arrested for a felony, as reported by Angela Caputo in this month’s cover investigation, “Minor misconduct.”
And the stakes are high for these teens, because Illinois is one of 10 states in the nation that automatically send 17-year-olds facing felony charges to adult courts. In recent years, the number of convictions for the teens has seen a spike.
At first blush, our conviction numbers might imply that Illinois is a state with politicians who are tough on crime. At least, that’s what politicians might hope others think.
In closer inspection, you realize that more than half of the felonies these teens are charged with are nonviolent offenses—economic crimes, as the Finnish might see it. As Caputo points out, most youth are arrested for drug offenses or stealing, not murder.
And are we any safer for locking up these youth?
It would be logical to think that an increase in convictions leads to a decrease in crime. But as Caputo points out, we’ve been arresting nearly the same number of 17-year-olds. Just the conviction number has changed. It’s a discrepancy that should raise some red flags.
The bottom line is this: There’s no question that youth should be prosecuted for their crime, but the adult penal system might not be the best place for it. And more convictions don’t really mean we’re safer.
In the end, we all lose. Youth lose out on the opportunity to get college loans or enlist in the military, and they have a harder time renting an apartment. And we all lose when we inhibit our future income tax contributors from helping shoulder their tax burden.
Research shows that, by adjudicating teens in the adult penal system, you’re more likely to groom a nation of young felons who are more likely to reoffend. If that’s true, then we might be creating more crime for our nation, not less. To me, that’s soft on crime.