Some criminal justice reformers and local politicians are pushing for the state of Illinois to raise the age of juvenile court eligibility, so that misdemeanor defendants up to 20 years old could be tried in the juvenile court system.
They say the change would follow research on how, and when, young brains develop, and would mirror successful changes made in some European countries. Right now, the cut-off for juvenile court eligibility in Illinois is 18.
“My kids are 19 and 22 and their brains are not fully developed,” state Senator Laura Fine said. “In Illinois, you can’t buy pack of cigarettes until you’re 21. You can’t drink until you’re 21. So why can you be convicted as an adult when you are 18?”
On Wednesday, Fine will be part of a conference in North Lawndale along with juvenile court officials from Europe as part of the push to raise the age of juvenile court eligibility.
A prison director and a prosecutor from Germany, along with a juvenile judge from Croatia will be part of the conference. Both Germany and Croatia allow young people past the age of 18 to go through the juvenile court system depending on the crime and circumstances.
For the last three years, Fine has introduced legislation to raise the age for juvenile court eligibility.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police has opposed raising the age and made the issue a high priority.
On its website, the lobbying organization said “the criminal activity among juveniles is likely to increase” if Fine’s proposal becomes law.
“Most gang members are within the impacted age group and this would subject many offenders to far more lenient penalties,” reads the statement on their website. “Juvenile incarceration is an expensive proposition, outstripping the costs of adult prison by a factor of two or three.”
So far, Fine’s bills have failed to gain traction, but Fine said she is hopeful that the conversation about raising the age of juvenile eligibility is gaining steam.
“Sometimes it takes a long time, but we’re educating people and we’re starting to turn people’s minds around and get them to realize that this is something that we need to look at,” Fine said.
Before her election, then-candidate for Mayor Lori Lightfoot told WBEZ that she supported raising the age of juvenile court eligibility.
“We should ensure that juvenile court eligibility standards are updated to account for current best practices and thinking in the fields of neuroscience and human development that increasingly indicate that young people do not reach cognitive maturity until at least age 22,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
Fine said Lightfoot’s support “absolutely” makes raising the age more politically possible.
The Justice Lab at Columbia University in New York City has made “emerging adults” and raising the juvenile court age a major priority nationally. The Justice Lab defines an emerging adult as someone between the ages of 18 and 25.
“This group is not fully mature yet. Their brains aren’t done developing — sociologically, they’re not occupying adult roles,” said Justice Lab co-director Vincent Schiraldi. “And yet in the justice system, we have this hard stop at 18 that’s just not justifiable by either our own experience or research.”
Schiraldi helped organize Chicago’s conference and similar planned events in Boston and New York, trying to bring lessons from the European justice systems to the United States.
“Most of the good research comes from America but much of the policy experimentation has occurred in Europe,” Schiraldi said. “We wanted to hear from those folks about how that plays itself out in those countries which have much lower juvenile arrest rates than we do in America.”
A report from the Justice Lab found that in Illinois, so-called emerging adults make up about a third of all arrests, and almost 30% of the prison population, despite accounting for only 10% of the state’s population.
And, the report found, 75% of those young people in Illinois state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses.
“You would think that … if people were going to sentence, particularly the youngest and most vulnerable people to your state prison system, it would only be for the more serious offenses, but it turns out the opposite is true,” Schiraldi said.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.