In juvenile courtrooms today, much of a judge’s time is spent trying to find out what’s going wrong and right in a child’s life and finding ways to change behaviors. Juvenile court is a place for second chances and sometimes third and fourth chances.
As brain research has proven, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, and common sense tells us, teens have a limited ability to weigh risks and a great capacity for reform. Every juvenile charged with a crime should begin in the juvenile court system.
However, Illinois gives prosecutors the power to start cases alleging the most serious of crimes in adult criminal courtrooms. It’s called “automatic transfer,” and the law should be repealed.
We support pending legislation (House Bill 172), which would allow prosecutors to request that minors charged with serious crimes be tried in adult court and would direct judges to conduct a hearing on that request with the juvenile present with an attorney in the courtroom.
Unlike the current law empowering prosecutors with the decision, juvenile judges would be required to give the most weight to the seriousness of the offense and the minor’s prior record, emphasizing the community’s right to be protected. All judicial transfer decisions would be based on specific criteria approved by the Legislature; made on the record; and made after evidence has been presented from both sides.
Today, prosecutors’ charging decisions meet none of these standards.
This is not a simple struggle for power.
We don’t question the trustworthiness of county prosecutors. However, prosecutors are not impartial, and even sound decisions by prosecutors are not transparent, which makes it impossible for either the court or the public to evaluate them.
When tragedy rocks a community and elected state’s attorneys face intense pressure to proclaim their intent to prosecute to the furthest extent of the law, the unique role of judges as neutral arbiters of justice becomes most critical, not dispensable. When evidence supports the conclusion that adult consequences are the best response to teenage crime, judges have no trouble issuing them.
The General Assembly should pass HB 172 and again allow for the exercise of judicial discretion in determining the appropriate setting for the trial of child defendants. These decisions are too important to be unreviewable and made behind the closed doors of a single prosecutor.