Young adults could be tried in juvenile court up to age 21 under legislation being considered in the Illinois Senate.
The plan would raise the age of juvenile delinquency from 18 for misdemeanor offenses. It’s an attempt to reduce recidivism and help young offenders get back on their feet.
Backers point to research that suggests brains are still developing in so-called emerging adults. They argue judges should be able to choose whether to treat young people as juveniles or adults.
State Sen. Laura Fine, a Democrat from Glenview, is sponsoring the legislation. She said more than a third of emerging adults in Cook County Jail were charged with misdemeanors.
“Many of them get stuck in the jail because they’re either homeless or don’t have a job and they can’t pay their bail,” Fine said. “They’re at an age where, if they did have those proper services, they could be put on another direction in their lives.”
Fine said keeping them locked up comes at a large cost to taxpayers. Last year, Cook County spent around $360,000 a day housing people charged with misdemeanors.
Garien Gatewood, with the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said it’s also an issue of racial inequity.
“For every one white person in jail between the ages of 18 and 21, there are nine black people,” Gatewood said, citing a Columbia University study. It shows Illinois locks up African-American emerging adults at three times the rate of New York and 3.5 times the rate of California.
But Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said adding cases would overwhelm juvenile courts.
“Putting a population into the juvenile justice system, which I can tell you — again, because I practice in juvenile court everyday — is overcrowded, is underfunded, is underresourced and has its own issues, is absolutely not going to solve any of these problems,” Rietz said.
Rietz said Illinois already offers alternatives for young offenders, like probation, expungement of records, and drug or mental health courts. She said prosecutors in individual counties have also created their own diversion programs without mandates or money from the state.
State Sen. Steve McClure, a Republican from Springfield, said it’s important to build an accurate criminal record, so repeat offenders can be punished properly — especially for violent misdemeanors, like domestic battery or cruelty to animals.
“Typically how this works is that if you get that conviction as a misdemeanor, the next time it’s charged as a felony,” McClure said. “But this would essentially avoid 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from ever being charged with a felony on the second time they do that same sort of a thing.”
McClure also raised concerns about young adults being able to get a FOID card if violent charges are tried in juvenile court.
The legislation is Senate Bill 239.