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Age-old issue persists about justice

Some say law too subjective about severity of 17-year-olds’ crimes

Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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WOODSTOCK – In Illinois, 17-year-olds can’t vote, enlist in the military without permission or buy a lottery ticket.

But they can be considered adults when it comes to the criminal justice system.

“Illinois treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal: held with adults in jail, tried in adult criminal court, sent to adult prison if incarcerated, and issued an employment-crushing permanent criminal record,” according to a recent report by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

In 38 other states, that 17-year-old would be in juvenile court, the report states.

Under current law, 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors have their cases handled in juvenile court. If the charge is a felony, the case goes to adult court.

How that case is charged – as a misdemeanor or a felony – often is left to prosecutors’ discretion.

A McHenry County example is the case of a Crystal Lake Central High School student accused earlier this month of planting a small camera in a boys locker room.

Luke Gildea, 17, could have been charged with a misdemeanor and had the case handled in juvenile court, where his name would have been confidential.

Instead, he faces felony charges of unauthorized videotaping and was subjected to a barrage of media coverage, including several TV news crews waiting as he bonded out of the McHenry County Jail.

Michael Combs, chief of the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office criminal division, said his office did authorize felony charges, but he thinks Gildea is a good candidate for the First Offender Program. If Gildea is accepted and successfully completes the program, the charges against him could be dismissed.

Combs said his office looks at the bigger picture when deciding on how to charge such cases.

“We try to look at the offense, the offender’s history, the circumstances surrounding it and what benefit they are going to get from going to adult court as opposed to juvenile,” he said. “The standard in juvenile court is the best interest of the minor.”

He cited a recent example where several minors were accused of breaking into a liquor store and stealing alcohol. They ended up being charged with misdemeanors.

“Let’s say there’s a fight and a 17-year-old punches somebody,” he said. “Does that need to be an aggravated battery, or can it be charged as a simple battery?”

Assistant Public Defender Kim Messer said the process for handling 17-year-old alleged offenders’ cases is too complicated and subjective.

“We’ve had kids who are charged with a felony at age 17 and then pick up a misdemeanor at age 17,” Messer said. “They’re already in adult court and all of a sudden they’re being petitioned to juvenile court.”

She’d rather see all of them automatically sent to juvenile court, which a proposed law would do. It’s also the recommendation of the Juvenile Justice Commission.

There are some exceptions already.

In the most serious cases – such as first-degree murder or aggravated criminal sexual assault where force is used – if the offender is 15, he is charged as an adult, said Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Ladd, who works in the juvenile division.

Until 2010, anyone older than 16 was subject to the adult system, which was far less rehabilitative and carries an adult criminal record, said George W. Timberlake, commission chairman and a retired judge.

When the law changed, it made it so 17-year-olds could have one foot in the juvenile court and the other in felony court.

“The compromise was better than leaving all 17-year-olds in the adult system, and now that the research demonstrated the system can manage the addition of 17-year-olds charged with felonies, it’s time to complete the reform,” Timberlake said.

Combs said he would welcome a change in the law.

“We try to use our discretion as best as we can, but it does become subjective,” he said. “It would be nice if the Legislature would change that so there’s some uniformity across the state in terms of how these cases are handled.”

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