Guest view: Law could help 17-year-olds avoid life of crime

April 22, 2013 

Before my recent retirement, I spent 12 years as presiding judge of the St. Clair County Juvenile Court, where I witnessed much sadness and hurt but was inspired and determined to right wrongs and transform lives when given the chance.

That's why I'm so interested in a state legislative debate about a needed reform in the way Illinois handles juveniles breaking the law. It can greatly improve the likelihood that we can change behaviors of older teens in trouble with the law and make our communities safer.

House Bill 2404 would end the state's confusing practice of placing 17-year-olds in juvenile courts for misdemeanor charges but in adult criminal court for all felony charges. Instead, Illinois would join 38 other states recognizing that 17-year-olds are juveniles and should be tried in juvenile court where we have the best opportunity to intervene and change their young lives for the better instead of sending them to prisons filled with veteran criminals and little opportunity for rehabilitation.

My years in juvenile court have convinced me that keeping most 17-year-olds in the juvenile system -- where we watch them more closely and work with their families -- is the right thing to do for those young people and for the safety of all of us living in this community.

It also is important to understand that the legislation would not alter current law requiring adult criminal court for older teens charged with such serious crimes as murder and criminal sexual assault and would allow judges to decide whether adult court is the best place to try juveniles accused of other serious felonies.

Getting into a fight at school, shoplifting electronics, possessing drugs at a concert -- these are some of the wrong and illegal acts that brought teens into my courtroom, and all of them qualify as felony offenses in Illinois. Right now, 17-year-olds who commit these acts are given permanent adult convictions, yet the adult system does little to intervene in their lives to prevent future crimes.

Putting 17-year-olds in juvenile court ensures much closer court supervision and ongoing contact. If sent to a youth prison and later returned to their communities, they would have to comply with juvenile court's rigorous supervision requirements. Further, victims have the same rights in juvenile court and adult court.

Studies show that most 17-year-olds soon grow out of bad behavior and abandon it for good, even when their conduct is somewhat serious. We should allow minors the opportunity to correct their mistakes and avoid making future ones. If we can help them avoid the stigma of starting adulthood with a felony record that can end their career, college or military ambitions, our communities will be safer and our work force will be strengthened.

I hope HB 2404, which has passed the House, will pass the Senate and become law. Not only is it both tough on crime and smart on crime, it's the right thing to do to help steer young people to lives as responsible adults.

James M. Radcliffe served as a judge in the 20th Judicial Circuit.

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