COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — The New Year will bring new chances for young people charged with felonies in Illinois.
Starting Jan. 1, 17-year-olds arrested on most felony charges will no longer be thrown in the slammer at Cook County Jail. They won't stand trial at the clamorous Leighton Courthouse at 26th and California amid throngs of defendants two and three times their age.
And they won't have to deal with a lifetime of the stigma that comes with a felony conviction.
Illinois is one of a dwindling number of states that treat 17-year-olds — minors according to the law in other regards — as adults when it comes to felony criminal charges.
But Illinois is changing course.
At the urging of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and with the support of politicos like Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart, lawmakers voted earlier this year to bring 17-year-olds facing felony charges back into the fold of the juvenile justice system.
Teens who get pinched for crimes ranging from drug charges to burglary and assault will be sent to juvenile court to fight their cases.
But the new law is not expected to apply to pending felony cases against 17-year-olds charged prior to Jan. 1. That, according to some defense attorneys, is a problem.
"The problem is going to be with these pending cases," said Assistant Public Defender Anand Sundaram, who represents predominantly young defendants charged with drug crimes. "These offenders are not any different than those charged after the first of the year. My feeling is that if the cases hasn't gone to trial, the [state's attorney] should dismiss it and re-file the charges in juvenile [court]."
The State's Attorney's Office declined to comment about how it will handle pending felony cases against 17-year-olds.
A study by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission called for the reform, arguing that 17-year-olds "cannot vote or play the lottery; they need permission to join the military or pierce their ears. … Yet Illinois law treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal."
The differences between the adult and juvenile justice systems are myriad. In the juvenile system, or "juvie" as it's often called, offenders and those with pending cases receive services and continue their education.
Advocates say the prospect of a permanent criminal record for a 17-year-old convicted of a nonviolent felony — a reality juvenile offenders are spared — can be life altering.
"That's a big black mark, it's hard for them to get work," said Stan Dyl, a mentor for Chicago youth GRIP Outreach. "A whole range of options are potentially lost forever, and that's not right. When there is no hope or future, that's a recipe for tragedy."
According to the commission, offenders sent to juvenile detention "are far more likely to change behaviors for the better than they would if locked up in a prison far from their families."
The new law will take effect Jan. 1.
The changes will not affect the automatic transfer system that mandates young defendants charged with certain crimes — like murder and sexual assault — be tried in adult court.