CHICAGO (CBS) -- Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has called for an end to the practice of automatically transferring some juvenile offenders to the adult court system.
Illinois judges used to decide whether a young suspect was tried as an adult or a juvenile. Preckwinkle wants to undo a 1982 change in state law which makes transfers for some felony charges automatic – for example, in cases of rape or murder.
State law requires any teenager between 15 and 17 years old to be placed in the adult court system if he or she is charged with murder, rape, aggravated battery with a firearm, armed robbery with a firearm, or carjacking with a firearm. Even teens as young as 13 are automatically charged as adults in cases of murder, rape, or aggravated kidnapping.
Preckwinkle said there are harsh effects on juveniles when they are automatically transferred to the adult court system, without a review of the case by a judge.
"We're sending young people to the adult system for lesser crimes than when judges made this crucial decision, and almost every single one of them is black or brown," she said. "This is deeply disturbing."
Preckwinkle said the automatic transfer law doesn't give juveniles charged with serious felonies a fair chance to be rehabilitated, and simply warehouses them in jail.
"Since we made this change to having it be at the discretion of the state's attorneys, 50 percent more children were transferred to adult courts," she said.
Preckwinkle cited a three-year study by the Juvenile Justice Initiative, which found only 13 percent of juvenile offenders transferred to adult courts since the 1982 change in state law were charged with murder, compared to 48 percent when such transfers were up to a judge.
In 54 percent of all cases in which juvenile offenders have been automatically transferred to adult courts, the defendant ended up being convicted or pleading guilty to lesser charges that would have stayed in the juvenile system, had those been the charges filed at the start.
"These laws have increased the disproportionate impact on children of color. The percentage of people transferred to adult court who are black rose by 15 percent, to 83 percent of the total, in the span of the three-year study," she said.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) has sponsored legislation to end such automatic transfers, and thinks it might pass.
"With the support of the president, and the recognition that … we are in desperate need of some criminal justice reform, I think that … I don't want to put a number on it, but we're well positioned right now to move this ahead," she said.
Nekritz filed the measure with the House in February, and likely would have to refile the plan after the next General Assembly is seated in January, as the legislature is not scheduled to meet again before the end of its current session.
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