What are ‘intensive probation services’?

The 16-year-old charged in the murder of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega was on probation for multiple armed carjackings.

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Dozens of people attend a vigil for 8-year-old Melissa Ortega in the Little Village neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, Jan. 29, 2022. Sixteen-year-old Emilio Corripio was charged in the fatal shooting of Ortega, who was struck in the head while crossing the street on January 22 while Corripio was allegedly shooting at rival gang members. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When Melissa Ortega was shot to death Jan. 22 in Little Village, Emilio Corripio, the teen accused of pulling the trigger, was just months into a three-year sentence of “intensive probation services.”

Corripio went into the probation program after pleading “delinquent” to two carjackings and possession of a stolen vehicle. “Delinquent” is the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty plea.

In the Ortega shooting, the teen has been charged as an adult with murder and has been ordered held without bail.

Intensive probation, among the strictest punishments for offenders in the juvenile system, prioritizes keeping young defendants out of jail and connected with their community, said Dontell Crowder, a staff attorney at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, who represents juvenile defendants.

“The purpose of juvenile court is just distinctly different from criminal court,” Crowder said. “The goal of the juvenile system is to repair harm to the community and make sure the young person is given the community-based services to get themselves on the right track.”

Youths on intensive probation are assigned as many as three probation officers to ensure that one is available to perform check-ins by phone or in-person any day of the week, Crowder said. Defendants are typically plugged into counseling sessions and out-of-school activities and sometimes must wear an electronic monitoring anklet.

Since the late 1990s, it’s become increasingly rare for judges to send youths to juvenile detention as punishment. As of October, just 23 juvenile offenders in Cook County, and 114 statewide, were serving time in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility.

It’s more common for youth offenders to be held in custody at Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center immediately after an arrest than it is for them to land in a detention facility after their case is disposed in court. There were 164 youths taken into custody at the detention center in January 2021, and 90% of them were held for less than the month Corripio spent locked up before being released on electronic monitoring in February, according to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Only 15 youths taken into the detention center that month faced a lead charge of carjacking.

Lax punishments for juveniles are not driving violent crime, said Stephanie Kollman, policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

Kollmann notes that while Corripio was charged with three carjackings, all took place within six months. He first appeared in front of a juvenile judge at age 15.

After his first arrest, Corripio’s month in juvenile detention was followed by two months on electronic monitoring. Then, his restrictions were lessened to a curfew. The pattern of gradually easing court supervision indicates the teen was following conditions of release that included check-ins with court officers, school attendance and counseling, Kollmann said.

Corripio picked up another carjacking charge while he was on curfew, but the case was based on police identifying him as a perpetrator in an incident that happened two weeks before he’d been arrested for the first carjacking. The new charge apparently landed him another month on electronic monitoring, according to prosecutors.

His conditions of release had been dropped to a curfew again by May, when he was arrested for a third carjacking and landed back in the detention center for another month, followed by two more months on electronic monitoring. By the time he pleaded delinquent to the charges in December, he had spent nearly a year locked up, on electronic monitoring or under a curfew. His final sentence was three years of intensive probation.

Not a typical carjacking suspect

Citywide, carjackings have tripled and murders climbed nearly 70% since 2019, and police often highlight the young ages of carjacking suspects.

Amid the outrage over Chicago’s two-year surge in homicides, Ortega’s death and the soaring number of carjackings, Kollmann worries many Chicagoans will assume teenagers are driving the violence in the city.

Chicago police made arrests in fewer than 5% of the more than 1,400 vehicular hijacking cases in 2020, Kollmann said, that’s fewer than 200 people. While more than half of those were minors, Kollmann said there is little reason to believe that a similar proportion of all carjackings are committed by young offenders.

“When you’re only catching 5 or 10% of carjackers, it’s safe to assume that you’re getting the ones who are easiest to catch,” Kollmann said. “That’s going to tend to be people that didn’t plan, and those are going to tend to be teenagers.”

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