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June 2012
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POLLYANNAS Rolling back Illinois juvenile law misguided

Do-gooders in Illinois are citing discrimination as a reason to change a 32-year-old provision in the state's juvenile code. The change they propose would, ironically, assure discrimination. But such is the Orwellian nature of modern criminal justice groupthink.

The law at issue provides that juveniles accused of the most serious crimes are automatically transferred to adult court and charged as adults. Similar laws exist in many states, a byproduct of the rise of drug gangs and a resulting juvenile crime wave that lax juvenile laws actually served to encourage.

Now the pendulum is swinging the other way, naively so in our opinion. And although the reason ostensibly is one of righting injustice, the real motive is money. Lawmakers in many states are feeling the pinch of tight budgets. It limits their ability to hand out bridges, fire trucks and cardboard checks at election time. One place lawmakers see an opportunity to find more payola is in reducing adult prison populations.

The discrimination issue is being raised by a group called the Juvenile Justice Initiative, which bills itself as non-partisan. The group reviewed 257 cases from Cook County (Chicago) between 2010 and 2012 involving juveniles who were automatically transferred to adult court. Most were from the city's troubled west and south sides. In those cases, 83 percent of those charged were black, 16 percent were Hispanic and 1 percent were non-minorities.

The study's authors conclude that these numbers reflect discrimination. But we find that a difficult argument. The law at present is colorblind. If a 15-year-old is arrested for attempted murder or armed robbery, it doesn't matter what race he or she is, he or she will be charged as an adult. The fact that in the context of this study, most people committing offenses are minorities reflects geography, not discrimination. If anything, the numbers in the study suggest the magnitude of the minority gang problem in the west and south sides (indeed, black and Hispanic gangs frequently make war on one another).

What will lead to discrimination is what the Juvenile Justice Initiative advocates - eliminating the automatic transfer provision from the law and replacing it with a hearing in which the judge considers the accused's age, education, mental and physical health and "circumstances."

Different judges with different dispositions will with certainty send youths of the same age charged with identical violent crimes in different directions - some to adult prison, others to the much softer world of the juvenile justice system, and you can be assured some of those decisions will be race-based.

The authors of the Juvenile Justice Initiative take a Pollyannaish view of juvenile crime that hearkens to the past. As an Associated Press report puts it, "By leaving juvenile court the authors concluded, the defendants lose their best chance at rehabilitation and often go to prison with adults; later, they have higher recidivism rates for violent crime."

That strikes us as an argument that the present law is working, not that Illinois needs to go softer on violent juvenile offenders. It suggests kids who commit murder and armed robbery at age 15 or 16 are already committed to a life of violent crime. That's particularly true if they happen to be gang members, as many of the youths in the Juvenile Justice Initiative study clearly are.

It was the realization that kids can be hardened criminals before they are 18 along with a murderous juvenile crime wave that led Illinois in 1982 to adopt its automatic transfer law. It's hard to imagine that the citizens of Illinois really want to return to that pre-1982 environment in order to free up more money for legislators to use for election year stocking stuffers.

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