A report by the Juvenile Justice Initiative finds that when prosecutors instead of judges decide which children should be treated as adults in Cook County criminal court, they overwhelming choose children of color.
Before 1982, any child 13 or older could be tried in adult court in Illinois on any charge if a juvenile court judge decided transfer to adult court was appropriate in a particular case. On average, 57 children were transferred annually to adult court, 48 percent of them for murder charges. Sixty-eight percent of kids transferred by judges were African American.
In 1982, Illinois lawmakers shifted the transfer decision from judges to prosecutors by automatically trying kids as young as 13 in adult court once prosecutors charge them with certain felony offenses. The change increased the number of kids in adult court and had a disproportionate impact on minority youth.
The most recent data shows that from 2010 to 2012, an average of 86 children were prosecuted as adults each year, most for non-homicide offenses; only 13 percent were charged with murder. Although just 44 percent of Cook County youth are African American, 83 percent of kids that prosecutors sent directly to adult court were African American. Sixteen percent were Hispanic. Of all 257 children, only one was white.
Most of the kids automatically sent to adult court were from the south side and west side of Chicago; only 18 percent came from outside the city. Cook County is responsible for almost all of the automatic transfers in the state; in 2001, prosecutors in the rest of Illinois transferred only 14 children total.
Prosecutors’ charging decisions in these cases often fail to track the seriousness of the offense: more than half (54 percent) of the automatic transfer cases result in convictions for lesser offenses that would not have triggered automatic transfer. Yet only four of these kids received a juvenile sentence.
The authors report that research conducted over the past three decades consistently shows that more and more kids have been transferred to adult court without a corresponding deterrent effect. Indeed, a 2007 research review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that merely processing a child’s case in adult court rather than juvenile court increases the likelihood that the child will re-offend. Children prosecuted as adults are more likely to commit new offenses, and more serious ones, than children with similar records tried in juvenile court for the same crimes.
Children prosecuted as adults are much more likely to die by suicide, and kids incarcerated in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and twice as likely to be violently attacked by inmates or staff. EJI believes confinement of children with adults in jails and prisons is indefensible, cruel, and unusual, and it should be banned.
Illinois is one of only 14 states with such extreme transfer laws. The report urges lawmakers to return juvenile transfer decisions to judges to ensure better outcomes for children, victims, taxpayers, and public safety.