When Sarah Karp looks back on her 2000 investigation into Illinois’ juvenile transfer law, what she remembers is a series of images: 15- and 16-year-olds walking into criminal courtrooms at 26th Street and California Avenue, where they were being tried as adults. She couldn’t help but think they seemed completely out of place.
“You’d just feel like, ‘Now, that’s a baby at that age, and yet they’re in adult jail,’” said Karp, who is now deputy editor at Catalyst Chicago.
Karp’s story found that poor minority youth in Chicago were disproportionately affected by the state’s juvenile transfer law.
She reported that 15- and 16-year-olds were being tried as adults if they were charged with selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing site. Ninety-nine percent of the 15- and 16-year-olds involved in the 363 drug cases at the Cook County criminal court between 1995 and 1999 were African American or Latino, Karp found.
In 2003, the Illinois General Assembly responded. The Legislature amended the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1987, allowing teens who would have been transferred to adult court to petition to remain in the juvenile system. The amendment, however, excluded teens who were charged with Class X felonies, which carry a penalty of at least six years of imprisonment.
In 2005, the Legislature eliminated the law’s provision that automatically transferred teens who were 15 or older to adult court on drug charges.
Karp said her story illustrated that being tried as an adult and labeled a convicted felon has a lasting impact on teens’ lives. One teen she profiled was 16-year-old T.J., who was caught with cocaine in his possession near his former elementary school.
“He really didn’t have that much drugs on him when he was arrested, yet now … his whole future was really going to be shaded by this arrest,” she said.