Every year thousands of kids are arrested in Illinois. When that happens the state collects lots of information about them: Not just their fingerprints but their age, race or ethnic background.
Experts say that sharing accurate information across jurisdictions is a serious problem and well-intentioned efforts to keep young people out of trouble may do more harm than good. WBEZ's Bill Healy provided a report.
If you’re a kid in Illinois - where you get arrested can be as important as why you get arrested.
Illinois has about a thousand police departments — in big cities, suburbs and small towns.
State law says that every day these agencies are supposed to let the state police know who broke the law - including young people.
But WBEZ has found there’s a lot of variation in which crimes, and kids, are reported to the state.
Burbank is a southwest suburb of Chicago. About 25,000 people live here. Captain Joe Ford has been with the Burbank Police for almost thirty years. Ford says most juvenile crimes are minor.
FORD: Typically retail theft along our Cicero Avenue shopping corridor. But also some fighting - some battery reports.
In Burbank the cops write down the kid’s date of birth, race and what they did to get in trouble. In many cases they’ll take fingerprints too. If the crime is serious, Burbank police submit all that information electronically to the Illinois State Police. Tammi Kestel is with the state police unit that gets that data.
KESTEL: Eighty-two percent, 80-some percent submit the arrest records electronically, over a Livescan device, which is paperless. They take the subject and put their fingers on a glass platen, push a button and send us the demographic data and fingerprints images electronically. The remaining 20 percent actually send in a physical arrest fingerprint card to us in the mail.
Once a kid’s information is in the system, it’s hard to get it out.
And a juvenile record can follow a kid for a lifetime. It’s a big reason why where a kid gets arrested matters. In Chicago, police say anytime a kid gets arrested they report it to the state.
But what about outside Chicago?
WBEZ did an informal survey of about a dozen suburban police departments to see how they handle crime reporting. And for minor offenses—it’s a mixed bag.
FORD: Say it’s a retail theft.
Here’s Burbank’s Captain Ford.
FORD: If they’re observed stealing something, and there’s evidence to prove that they stole something the officer gets called and investigates. At that point he makes a decision at what level to charge. In the city of Burbank – as in most cities - we have ordinances that we can charge for petty theft.
It’s much the same in south suburban Flossmoor. There – if a kid gets in a fight - he could be charged with disorderly conduct and battery – local ordinance violations that don’t require fingerprints.
But even if police departments decide that a misdemeanor is warranted, there’s room for discretion.
Again Captain Ford:
FORD: The state requires certain charges to be submitted to them. Any felony is automatically submitted. Misdemeanors-Class A misdemeanors, Class B misdemeanors-can be submitted to the state. Some cases are never submitted to the state.
That’s because in Illinois it’s optional for local police to send certain misdemeanors to the state.
In Winnetka - on the North Shore - police tell us they consider all sorts of things before sending a misdemeanor up the ladder. Is this the kid’s first offense? Does he show remorse? Is the behavior seriously anti-social?
Burbank’s Captain Ford says discretion helps local cops protect kids.
FORD: The object of the juvenile justice system is to keep juvenile offenders out of the system, to keep the one-time-made-a-mistake juvenile offender from getting branded as a delinquent.
It’s a sentiment that juvenile justice expert Randell Strickland agrees with. He works with the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change program.
But Strickland says inconsistencies in reporting juvenile arrests can cause other problems.
STRICKLAND: For policy, practice, programming, services, we need to know who’s being arrested, how often, by whom, under what circumstances, for what reasons, where, all of those things.
Without meaningful data – he says - you have an incomplete picture.
If the state gets all Chicago’s misdemeanor reports – for example – and only some from crimes in other cities, it skews data and perceptions.
STRICKLAND: Cause otherwise: How do you plan for interventions? How do you change policies? How do you change practices? How do you improve responses to young people if you don’t know what they’re doing and where they’re doing it and when they’re doing it?
A better way, says Strickland, would be for local police to capture every arrest.
Police could share the race and gender of the kids, the crimes they commit and even where the arrests took place.
But – says Strickland – for misdemeanors, their names and fingerprints could be kept private.
That way we’d get a clearer picture of who is being arrested and where –with more long-term protection for juveniles.