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Sen. Robert Peters introduced legislation to require lawyers for all people younger than 18 during in-custody police interrogations.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker greets state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, during a visit to Navy Pier on Feb. 28, 2022. Peters on Wednesday introduced legislation to require lawyers for all people younger than 18 during in-custody police interrogations. Pritzker’s office said the governor supports the bill.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Bill backed by Pritzker would require a lawyer for kids under 18 during interrogations

New legislation in Springfield backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker would require a lawyer for young people under 18 during a police interrogation — an expansion of juvenile rights that comes in response to WBEZ reporting that showed how a suburban Chicago detective extracted a teen’s false confession to a shooting.

The bill, introduced this week by state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, applies to any public official’s questioning of a child in custody about any crime. It would also bar kids from waiving their right to counsel. Under the measure, any statement by a minor without a lawyer’s presence would be inadmissible as evidence against the child in any juvenile or criminal proceeding.

“Illinois has a painful legacy of being the wrongful conviction capital of the world,” Peters said. “Providing children with legal counsel during an interrogation is an important step in the right direction. It’ll bring safety by rebuilding public trust and ensure justice by providing children adult supervision during interrogations.”

But lobbying groups for Illinois prosecutors, sheriffs and chiefs of police say requiring a lawyer for suspects under 18 throughout an interrogation would discourage teens from talking to police and make it too hard to solve crimes.

“This is careless legislation that would make communities less safe and would shield violent youthful offenders and gang members from the consequences of their actions,” said Lee Roupas, an assistant state’s attorney in west suburban DuPage County who heads the Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association.

The law enforcement groups have derailed attempts to pass similar legislation. One such attempt resulted in a compromise measure that took effect in 2017. The law requires a lawyer for kids under 15 and applies to homicides and sexual assaults only.

That measure did not protect a 15-year-old interrogated for 43 minutes in 2022 at a Waukegan police station without a parent or attorney. The police charged him with a shooting that injured a dollar store clerk. The teen went to jail and stayed there until his basketball team proved he was in another town during the shooting.

A WBEZ lawsuit led to Waukegan’s release of the interrogation video last year. In the footage, the detective convinces the 15-year-old to waive his right to counsel, inflates the evidence against him, feeds him facts about the shooting and suggests he can go home if he goes along with the story.

At least 30 Illinoisans between ages 15 and 17 have confessed to serious crimes before their convictions were overturned based on new evidence, according to National Registry of Exonerations data analyzed by WBEZ. That number doesn’t include false confessions leading to wrongful arrests without convictions, such as the Waukegan case.

The Juvenile Justice Initiative, an Evanston-based group supporting Peters’s legislation, points to research showing that children are less competent than adults to make legal decisions and may not understand their rights.

“Even being near the scene of an offense could trigger transfer provisions that send them automatically to adult court — and adult mandatory sentencing,” the group says in a statement about the bill. “Youth need a lawyer to explain these complex legal statutes.”

But Roupas, the leader of the prosecutor’s group, said the law already “protects all citizens, regardless of age, from providing involuntary confessions.”

“This bill attempts to take away law enforcement’s efforts to obtain voluntary [confessions] too, even in the most violent and heinous crimes,” Roupas said.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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