This package of stories on Illinois’ practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults for felony crimes and its impact was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of The Chicago Reporter.

As police pinned Derrick Reed to the hood of a squad car, one thought raced through his mind: “Oh, man. I’m going to go away. I’m 17 now.”

The East Garfield Park teen’s coming-of-age story isn’t filled with school dances or football-team tryouts. Rather, the day that shaped his adolescence was Nov. 30, 2009.

It started out fairly unremarkable for him. Reed stepped out of his apartment and into a local open-air drug market. The operation was standard, and he had his role.

Customers would walk up to a 14-year-old and hand him some cash. The boy would signal to Reed to grab the drugs from a stash spot. Reed waded through the thick weeds of a vacant, trash-strewn lot.

On this day, two beat cops were within eyeshot, watching as the teens dealt the drugs. Reed fished around the ground, locating an empty juice bottle. He tipped it over, spilling out a shiny packet. As the 5-foot-6 teen ran the tiny foil wrapper back for the handoff, he could hear someone yelling back to him. “Lock it up. Five-O!” The voice pierced the crisp fall air. Before Reed knew it, a squad car had jumped the curb and officers were darting out after him.

The officers found the juice bottle and recovered from it five packets of heroin. The crime lab priced the drugs at $75. It was enough for a felony.

To make matters worse, Reed had just turned 17 one month earlier. That meant he could be booked as an adult.

Months later, he was a convicted felon.

Had Reed been charged in most parts of the country, he would have been subject to juvenile jurisdiction–”taking high school classes and receiving social services instead of in adult jail watching television round-the-clock and rooming with an adult twice his age. However, Illinois is one of only 12 states to automatically prosecute minors facing felony charges in the adult penal system. Over the past decade, fewer states are prosecuting minors as adults, and a state commission is now trying to figure out whether Illinois should be next.

“In no other arena are we willing to look at 17-year-olds as adults,” said Randell Strickland, the Illinois disproportionate minority contact coordinator of the McArthur Foundation’s Models for Change program. As a member of the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission, he’s hoping the research nudges lawmakers to transition the teens into the juvenile system. “We’re killing flies with sledgehammers. It’s not only wasting resources, but wasting lives,” he said.

A Chicago Reporter analysis of court data found that 17-year-olds convicted of felonies defy the perception of some that these teens are violent criminals who deserve to be punished alongside adults. A majority, 54 percent, of 17-year-olds prosecuted in Cook County’s adult courts were convicted for drug deals and property theft alone, according to the analysis.

Of all the convictions, 58 percent were for nonviolent offenses. Include robbery without a gun, and nonviolent offenses are 71 percent of all convictions. The single largest number of convictions was based on low-level drug offenses.

An overwhelming majority of these 17-year-olds, like Reed, are black–”77 percent. And most hail from just five impoverished areas, some of which are home to the highest long-term unemployment rates in the country–”including Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Roseland and West Englewood.

Once these teens were charged and their cases headed to court, the odds were they’d plead guilty and end up with an adult felony conviction, regardless of whether they had a private lawyer or public defender, according to the analysis. All this, well before they’re able to vote, buy a pack of cigarettes or join the military.

“Why are we giving young people felony records that will haunt them for the rest of their lives?” said Liz Kooy, who has been tracking juveniles in adult court systems across the state over the better part of the past decade through the Illinois-based advocacy group the Juvenile Justice Initiative.

Kooy is among the few people who know the ins and out of how teens are prosecuted as adults under Illinois’ maze of laws. She worked at the Juvenile Transfer Advocacy Unit in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office at the beginning of the decade. There, she quickly became the go-to expert for minors caught in the adult system.

As Kooy saw it, her main job was to advocate for the teens so they wouldn’t slip through the cracks in the nation’s largest courthouse. She saw how judges, prosecutors and public defenders–”who represent a vast majority of the teens–”were at times under enormous pressure to move cases swiftly through the system. In her eyes, that has led to a lot of negotiating on criminal charges to get guilty pleas over the years, often with little regard for the long-term consequences of a felony conviction. All of those teens in the Reporter’s analysis are now convicted felons and will be locked out of federal student aid for college, military service, public aid and, in many cases, jobs–”for the rest of their lives.

These teens “are given a lot of bad choices,” Kooy said. “They’re told, –˜You can plead and get two years or face six.’ “

The Reporter analyzed what happened when a plea was entered and found that overwhelmingly, 99 percent of all 17-year-olds pleaded guilty. Only one percent–”27 people–”pleaded not guilty.

Once convicted, the teens weren’t given just a slap on the wrist for their crimes. More than half of them were sentenced to adult prison. According to the Reporter’s analysis, 882 of the 17-year-olds whose cases were opened since 2006 were sentenced to a combined 3,103 years behind bars in adult prison. More than half of those youth were sentenced to prison times of more than three years. Those remaining were sentenced to alternatives, including probation, community service or court supervision.

Abishi Cunningham, who now oversees the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, said he would not comment on the Reporter’s findings without seeing the analysis. But it’s common knowledge that annual attorney caseloads in Cook County have long exceeded the national standard of 150 felony cases per attorney, drawing criticism from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that the lawyers don’t have the resources to adequately vet cases.
“I don’t think you’d ever find someone who would say, –˜I twisted someone’s arm to get a plea,’ ” said former Public Defender Sean Harrison who now works criminal cases in private practice. “They’d lose their [law] license for starters.”

According to the Public Defender’s Office, the 80 lawyers at Cook County’s largest courthouse–”at 26th Street and California Avenue–”were representing people in 10,007 felony cases within the first six month of this year. If the caseloads were to remain constant for the rest of the year, each lawyer would have worked on an estimated 189 cases, or about 25 percent more than the national recommendation.

For Reed, his drug conviction was just another reminder of the role drugs played in his life. Child welfare workers began putting his file together from the day he was born, hooked on crack at St. James Hospital in south suburban Chicago Heights. Social workers charted his first year as a fragile infant tethered to a heart monitor, his days as a ward of the state and his teen father’s effort to stop selling drugs.

Ultimately, his grandmother, Patricia, who scraped by as a home health care worker since the early 1980s, adopted him and his older brother. Social workers kept tabs on Reed. His mom had at least a dozen additional drug-addicted children–”all of whom were taken away from her as well.

The effects of being a drug baby lingered for Reed. He suffered seizures until he was 8. School work was a challenge. And by the time he reached high school, he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital with signs of schizophrenia.

Now, at 17, in many ways he has grown into the typical teenager. He loves cartooning, has two pierced ears, likes to hole up in his bedroom listening to loud music, and longs for the latest gym shoes and movie money. The latter is what got him thinking about selling drugs.
“It was all about money,” he said from behind a plate glass window at the Cook County Jail, where he sat in July awaiting trial on a new set of drug-related charges.

Those charges were leveled on April 17 after Reed told his grandparents he was stepping out to pick up the jacket he left at his friend’s house. Minutes after he walked out the front door, police stormed the 3600 block of West 5th Avenue in a drug raid. Reed and some officers locked eyes, and Reed shouted that police were moving into the courtyard.

His grandfather, Albert Sims, heard the commotion and went to the window. Reed “was pinned to the ground with a gun to his head,” Sims said. Reed was charged with attempting to ditch a clear, knotted plastic bag stuffed with crack, ecstasy and marijuana, initially valued at $710. He went back to jail, this time sharing a cell with a 34-year-old in Division XI on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Reed was transferred among a handful of adult units while there, including a psychiatric hospital after he got so agitated that he started picking fights and plucking the hairs out of his head, which left a bald spot.

His grandparents have been on the move as well. They had waited nearly two decades on the Chicago Housing Authority’s waiting list for an apartment. But under the agency’s zero-tolerance drug policy, the now-unemployed couple was evicted and sent packing in July because of Reed’s drug activity.

In late July, Chicago Public Schools sent his grandparents a letter asking which high school Reed wanted to enroll in for the fall. His former school, John Marshall Metropolitan High School, had dismal academic performance this year. The school’s graduation rate dropped to 41 percent, and only 4 percent of 11th graders met state benchmarks last year.

As Reed sat in a jail cell, high school was the furthest thing from his mind. His biggest question was whether to request a bench trial. He pointed out what he considered some inconsistencies in his case. The officer who testified at his preliminary hearing wasn’t the arresting officer, he said.

If he lost, however, he could get between four and 16 years behind bars–”nearly the sum total of his life–”his public defender told his grandparents. If he cut a deal, he might get probation based on his schizophrenia. It was a gamble. “Whatever gets me out of here the soonest,” he said.

Ultimately, Reed pleaded guilty. After spending three months behind bars, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Rickey Jones on July 29 closed the case in all of 13 minutes. Reed and another 17-year-old from the West Side were convicted of adult felonies in one fell swoop. Reed was sentenced to probation predicated on him getting mental health treatment.

His grandmother wept with relief.

She and her husband had waited patiently, showing up early to each court appearance, as the case dragged on for months. His grandfather shook his head in disappointment as he left the courtroom. “These kids –¦ they plead to get out of here. Who wouldn’t?” he said. “[What about] the long-term effect? What’s going to happen on the job hunt when he’s 25?”

Founded a century ago, the juvenile justice system is built on the premise that teenagers should be treated differently from adults. Take Reed, for example. If he were in juvenile detention, he’d be held to a dawn-to-dusk regimen of high school classes, recreation time, peer groups and social services with the intent of getting his life on track. Instead, he spent most of his jail time in a cell or watching television.

He thought about attending GED classes but said that the adult prison classrooms are crowded and notorious for gang activity. It’s an environment that Reed, who weighs 140 pounds at most, chose to avoid.

Illinois lawmakers convened a juvenile justice commission to weigh whether 17-year-olds should be in the juvenile system rather than locked up with adults. Gov. Pat Quinn named 19 members to the 25-member commission in January, charging the group with delivering recommendations by 2012.

Advocates, psychologists, public defenders and some lawmakers are hoping that the commission will consider that all of Illinois’ laws calling for prosecuting juveniles as adults predate scientific studies on adolescent brain development. That research has found that the frontal lobe of the brain, the nerve center for impulse control, is not fully developed until the early 20s–”long after these teens were convicted as adults.

Judge William O’Brien oversaw the Felony Trial and Narcotics Prosecution divisions of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office from 1996 to 2002 before taking the bench. He said that from a legal standpoint, it’s up to lawmakers to rectify the inconsistencies in who is deemed a minor under Illinois law. Crime victims are juveniles until they turn 18. Misdemeanor cases aren’t brought to adult court until a defendant turns 18. But there are still a score of additional statutes on the books, which spell out how juveniles, 16 and younger, can be transferred to adult prosecution.

For years, Illinois has been chipping away at its own laws that affect youth. Lawmakers decided that minors were being prosecuted too harshly under state laws, and in 2005 struck down a law that automatically transferred 15- and 16-year-olds into the adult system for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing. Last year, the legislature agreed to return 17-year-olds with misdemeanors to juvenile court.

Shifting all 17-year-olds would require a reallocation of resources, including additional lawyers and investigators, said Linda Uttal, who heads up the juvenile justice division in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

Still, “It’s not a far-fetched idea,” Strickland said. In the past two and a half years, 13 percent, or 1,740, of the teens admitted to Cook County’s juvenile detention center were 17, according to detention center records obtained by the Reporter.

Earl Dunlap, a plain-spoken, juvenile corrections veteran appointed by federal court to overhaul the county’s juvenile detention system in 2007, said that he would welcome the shift, but only if the people who needed to be in jail were held there. “But if we’ve got to keep every Tom, Dick and Harry who commits a Mickey Mouse crime –¦ It gets to be insane in here.”

Contributing: Alissa Groeninger, Catherine Newhouse, Kayla Bensing, Samantha Winslow, Brittney Wong and Rebecca Freitag.

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.