Jemarco Baldon, 17, heads back to the Honorable George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th Street and California Avenue for his fourth court appearance on a felony drug charge. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Jemarco Baldon was sitting in his high school music class in June trying not to doze off during the movie Chicago when a security guard tapped him on the shoulder. A police officer wanted to ask him a few questions.

“They say, ‘What’s done in the dark comes to light,’” Baldon said. The 17-year-old knew that he’d spent too much time shooting dice and hustling drugs. Even after he got a job at a fast-food joint and quit dealing, he kept wandering back to a rundown corner at Roosevelt Road and Springfield Avenue where gambling and open dealing, combined with sales from the Sunshine Food and Liquor store next door, account for a thriving little business district on an otherwise haggard stretch of North Lawndale.

Within minutes, Baldon was standing in the entryway of John Marshall Metropolitan High School in handcuffs. Baldon is a skinny teenager, who, at 5 feet 9 inches, weighs about 130 pounds. He wears his hair closely cropped, and has a thing for designer clothes and a knack for sounding insightful beyond his years. “I guess it caught back up with me,” he said.

A little more than three months earlier, an undercover cop recorded buying $40 worth of heroin from him during Operation COPE, a sting aimed at stamping out the neighborhood’s stubbornly resilient drug trade. Police haven’t disclosed how many undercover buys were made during the months that the investigation dragged on, but before it wound down, they say that Baldon bit twice.

He tilts his head back and squints as he tries to think back to the days of that sting. Most of the deals run together in his mind. By Baldon’s count, he quit dealing in late February. “Once I got the job, it wasn’t so fascinating for me anymore,” he said. But, before that, he sold heroin for a little more than a year from the cul-de-sac just off Roosevelt—practically in shouting distance of the apartment where he and his mother lived at the time.

“It’s not that hard to sell drugs. You would be surprised. A rich person from downtown you might see come by. It ain’t just old bums that live in the neighborhood. It’s people from everywhere. People come from out of town to buy drugs,” he said. “It sells itself.”

Just weeks before school let out for the summer, Baldon was booked on adult felony drug charges. In a mug shot, he’s wearing his school uniform, a burgundy polo, which he ended up sleeping in at the Harrison District lockup. The next morning, he was hauled over to Cook County courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue in a paddy wagon.

When it comes to arresting 17-year-olds like Baldon on felony charges, Chicago tops the nation’s 10 largest cities that report crime data to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. And those arrests can carry harsh consequences.

That’s because Illinois is one of 10 states in the nation that automatically send 17-year-olds facing felony charges to adult courts. A Chicago Reporter analysis of criminal court data shows that an increasing number of 17-year-olds in Cook County have been convicted as adults compared with five years ago. In 2011, 907 17-year-olds were convicted, up 15 percent from 789 in 2007.

In 2012, Cook County is on pace to surpass last year’s record, tallying 41 percent more convictions as of April than during the same period in 2011.

The spike comes at a time when felony arrests of 17-year-olds in the county are down slightly—by 1 percent between 2009 and 2011—according to data compiled by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Despite the dip in arrests, the stakes are still high for 17-year-olds—especially in Chicago, where a vast majority of the county’s arrests are made.

In 2009, the latest year for which data are available, the number of 17-year-olds arrested on potential felony charges in Chicago—6,133 in all—not only trumped all major cities across the country, but nearly equaled the combined total of three cities with the next highest records: Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia. New York’s police department didn’t report its arrest data to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that year.

If prosecuting minors in the adult system is supposed to be cutting the worst kind of crime, Jeffrey Butts, director of research and evaluation at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the strategy is falling short. Earlier this year, Butts released an analysis of national crime data that found violent crime hasn’t fallen any faster in states where a large number of minors are prosecuted in adult courts. “Overall, the rate of serious crime has dropped over the past 15 years,” Butts said. But, as those crimes have fallen, “police spend more time on the little things that used to be ignored,” he said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an unintended consequence has emerged from sending youth into the adult system: The nation’s youngest felons are more likely to reoffend.

The CDC’s findings have been embraced by the gubernatorially appointed Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, which has been tasked with studying the effects of early encounters with the adult law enforcement system.

In commission chairman George Timberlake’s opinion, “an excess of emotion” has been a driving force behind sending minors into Illinois’ adult criminal courts. The commission is poised to issue a series of recommendations later this year on whether the state should extend juvenile jurisdiction to 17-year-olds facing felony charges. That’s already the case when it comes to delinquency or misdemeanor charges.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat who helped initiate the commission’s work, said one of the biggest obstacles for any proposal that sends all 17-year-olds to juvenile jurisdiction would be prosecutors, including Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’ office, which he said has a history of lobbying for “tough-on-crime” policies. Alvarez’ office declined to comment for this article.

“I don’t see North Lawndale being any ‘safer’ than it was 15 years ago,” said Mariam Kaba, the director of Project NIA, a nonprofit that works with teens. Having a felony at a young age has only made it harder for poor teens to get student loans, enlist in the military or find a job, she said. “They come back to a community that’s more depressed,” she said.

Baldon, meanwhile, is just trying to hang onto what he’s got going for him, but, with his court case dragging on and on, it’s getting harder.

He’s on house arrest and has to get permission to go to work. Every week he faxes his schedule over to the sheriff’s office. At times, it gets lost in the shuffle, or the permission gets granted too late for him to make his shift. His manager is supportive but, “She says she can’t keep putting me on the schedule when I can’t work,” he said.

“I worry that I’m about to lose my job,” he said.

*          *          *

On a Monday morning in early September, Baldon was back in court for the fourth time. The week before, he began his senior year and he brought a copy of his school schedule to show his public defender, who, two hours after court was called into session, still hadn’t shown up.

Baldon is carrying a full course load this semester, including advanced math, creative writing and debate. He’s still working at the same downtown restaurant, a Wendy’s just north of the financial district, but continues to miss shifts.

Roy Baldon, his dad’s older brother, tagged along to court that day, frustrated that, three months after his nephew’s arrest, there was still no resolution in sight. At 6 feet 7 inches, Roy Baldon has a commanding presence and a no-nonsense style. “Sit up straight,” he told his nephew while quizzing him on his school schedule. Everyone in ear shot sat a little taller.

The attorneys assigned to courtroom 201 chit-chatted, catching up after the weekend. The judge, an aging white guy with wire-rimmed glasses and gray moustache, was heard talking about the previous night’s football game with a lawyer until his microphone cut off.

Between 2007 and April 2012, there were 4,351 17-year-olds who were convicted of a felony in courtrooms like 201. African Americans made up more than three-fourths among those whose race and ethnicity were recorded in the county data.

On average, between 2007 and 2010, the number of 17-year-olds convicted of a felony was about 772. Then, in 2010, an Illinois law that moved misdemeanor cases back to the juvenile courts went into effect. The following year, the number of convictions shot up by 16.7 percent to 907.

The crime category that saw the biggest increase since the law changed was theft, which grew by 77 percent. In 2010, it surpassed drugs as the No. 1 reason that 17-year-olds were convicted of felonies.

Elizabeth Clarke, the executive director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, an advocacy group that helped write the law, wondered if the increase in convictions amounts to an “unintended backlash” as minors face stiffer charges rather than being diverted to the juvenile courts.

But Stephanie Kollmann, clinical fellow at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, speculated that a “procedural hurdle” may account for the spike. Often times, defendants are charged with a more-serious crime but through plea deals settle on a conviction for a lesser offense. When it comes to low-level cases, like theft, pleading the lowest-level cases down would require transferring the teens to the juvenile jurisdiction.

“What I suspect is happening is that youth are not getting the benefit of the bargain,” Kollmann said. “Once you’ve been tagged as an adult, you’re staying in that system.”

Baldon showed up to court ready to plead guilty that day—under the right terms.

Never mind that neither he nor his attorney have had a chance to review the audio footage that police say they have as proof of a drug deal.

Or that his court case is so thin on details that he’s never seen a complete police report describing what led up to his arrest.

“In a lot of these cases with youth, there are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Roy Baldon. “It’s like blindsiding them. They don’t know what’s going on. The judge doesn’t know what’s going on. Nobody knows what’s going on.”

When Baldon’s attorney finally showed up, he followed her up to the judge’s bench. Like the handful of young black men who approached the bench before him, his stance widened, and his hands folded reflexively behind his back. His attorney and the judge exchanged words, and she flipped through her pocket calendar. The conversation lasted less than two minutes. The next court date was set for three weeks later.

Then the attorney broke it to Baldon that she’s retiring.

“Can I call you?” he said, following her out of the courtroom down the second-floor corridor.

She handed him her number.

“It’ll work until the 28th [of September],” she said, with one foot through the door.

“How about getting probation?” he asked.

“I’ll put a note on your file,” she said before slipping into the stairwell and out of sight.

Baldon didn’t look frustrated, or angry. He hung his head with sadness.

“I hope when I come on the 9th [of October], I get an offer,” he said.

*          *          *

Illinois was on the cutting edge of juvenile justice reform more than a century ago when lawmakers created a system that separated youth from adult offenders. The idea was that if age-appropriate systems were in place—from schooling and social services to counseling—the youth would have a better shot at cutting ties with crime and becoming productive adults.

Over the years, Illinois lawmakers have adopted additional laws clearing the way for minors, younger than 17, to be transferred into adult felony courts for violent crimes, like bringing a gun to school or murder. Though they’re minors, those defendants aren’t treated with kid gloves in the adult system; they’re interrogated and allowed to plead guilty on their own.

If Illinois lawmakers followed their peers across the nation and decided to push more 17-year-olds back into the juvenile justice system, the teens would still be subject to the transfer laws for violent crimes, Timberlake pointed out.

“We have the ability to transfer 17-year-olds to the courts for serious crimes. And that’s important,” Timberlake said. “We don’t have the ability to transfer them [to the juvenile courts] for less serious crime.”

While the governor’s commission initially got off to a slow start, the pace is picking up. Preliminary research was unveiled in September, and, by late fall, members hope to firm up a series of recommendations on whether all 17-year-olds should be moved to the juvenile courts.

If they stay on schedule, their report will be delivered before a new Illinois General Assembly is sworn in in January.

Raoul said that it’s too soon to predict how the new body of lawmakers will react to raising the age of adult jurisdiction to 18. “There are folks who don’t want to appear soft on crime,” he said.

After working with the legislature on different reforms over the years, Clark is more optimistic, particularly because there’s been bipartisan support on other juvenile justice issues in the past.

Commission member Julie Biehl, who is the director of the Children and Family Justice Center, said there’s too much ambiguity over who is a child in the eyes of the law. Her hope is that the legislature will set a uniform standard, with all 17-year-olds kept in the juvenile justice system.

“We need a clear line,” Biehl said.

*          *          *

Baldon was still in grammar school when he started hanging out with older guys who sold drugs not far from the weed- and trash-filled block where police charged him with dealing heroin.

By the time he was 15, going on 16, the money he saw other guys making looked too good to pass up. “It was the only thing catching my eye,” Baldon said.

Judging by the Chicago Police Department’s own arrest data, he wasn’t alone. More teens—1,117—were arrested on felony drug charges in the West Side’s Harrison District than any other part of the city in 2009 and 2010.

“It’s the age-old supply and demand,” Timberlake said. “If white kids from Skokie will drive to Austin to score, kids in Austin will sell it to them. I don’t see a lot of jobs in Austin.”

Police launched Operation COPE early on in the year to restore order to a corner of the neighborhood where Harrison District Sgt. Daniel Allen said the drug sales “were incredible.”

Allen’s West Side district stretches through North Lawndale to East Garfield Park and parts of Humboldt Park. Seventeen-year-olds from those three communities, along with neighboring Austin, account for nearly a third of the convictions in Cook County during the past decade.

“The drugs do sell themselves,” said Allen, a former tactical officer who worked the narcotics beat. “But nobody’s a victim for doing what they do. You’re not a victim. You’re an offender.”

In Baldon’s case, he’s a repeat offender. On Feb. 18, he was walking down the block with a friend when police cuffed him for selling $60 worth of heroin. As a first-time offender, a judge decided to toss that case in exchange for the 17-year-old going to drug school for four days and keeping his nose clean. Baldon admited that his first brush with the law wasn’t much more than “a slap on the wrist.”

The case was thrown out on July 6, but the initial charge was tacked back onto his current case, making probation unlikely.

“We can lock up 1,000 people, and that’s not going to help the community out,” said Allen, who grew up on the West Side and still lives in the area. In his mind, “Reform is the bigger issue.”

“When kids get locked up, when they get out of jail, what is there for them to do?” he said. “Because of their environment, they’re going to commit these crimes again because they don’t come from a controlled environment or they’re enticed by the fast money.”

Last year, Baldon’s mom moved him into a greystone on a street just a few blocks east, where open drug dealing is less prevalent. “It’s much quieter,” he said from the porch of his third-floor apartment that faces a string of boarded-up homes. But it’s not exactly a respite.

“Our community is messed up. Drug dealers are out early in the morning. There are bums everywhere,” Baldon said. “I’m so used to it—everything from shootings to people overdosing to big-time drug dealers going to jail or getting killed. I’ve seen it all.”

The reality that he could get stuck in the neighborhood with nothing to do but sell drugs weighs heavier on Baldon these days. “I’m still a kid,  but at this age, I’ve got to learn how to be a young adult,” he said.

“I saw where it was going to get me,” Baldon added. “I didn’t never want to be labeled a statistic: A typical black male, dead or in jail or dropping out of high school, or on the corner, putting their energy into the wrong thing. Negative things.”

By late February when he got the interview at the downtown Wendy’s restaurant, where his mom’s friend is the manager, Baldon was itching to try something new.

*          *          *

‘They say change is life,” Baldon said, “but change is optional.”

Six months after he landed the job at Wendy’s, he’s still working four or five days a week. On school days, he makes it downtown for the 5-to-midnight shift. On the weekends, he usually starts at 3 p.m.

“I love my job,” Baldon said. “It’s fun satisfying your customers. You get in some jokes. They like me. The managers be working with me.”

The money’s not bad either. Every two weeks, Baldon earns somewhere between $300 and $500. It’s not that much less than what he made dealing drugs, though he used to work far fewer hours.

He keeps reminding himself that school needs to be his top priority, though he often “gets distracted,” mostly by girls and keeping up with his friends.

“It seems like it’s gonna be a good school year,” he said. “I’m just ready to get through high school.”

His legal problems have made getting to class a challenge; he missed the first three days of school because of another mix-up at the sheriff’s office.

If he could pick any career, he would be an architect. He figures it’s a good fit because, along with his aptitude for math, he’s pretty handy.

He’s swapped out lights, fixed a broken door and built a fence for his mom. “Being the man of the house, you’ve got to fix stuff,” he said.

Baldon is hoping for a “710-1410” probation, which means that the drug case would be wiped off his record if he steers clear of trouble. His outgoing public defender said that’s unlikely because of his earlier case. About 4 percent of the 17-year-olds convicted since 2007 have gotten that sentence.

“There’s a lot of kids from neighborhoods like ours that are successful even though it’s a constant struggle,” said Roy Baldon, who is optimistic that his nephew will turn things around.

If taking a plea deal is the first step toward wiping the slate clean, Baldon is all for it. After feeling in limbo for three months, he’s ready to get off house arrest and get on with his life. “I’m tired,” he said. “I don’t want to go through this again.”

Contributing: Safiya Merchant.

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.