Illinois has been slow to reform its Juvenile Criminal laws, but change has happened and continues for the benefit of Illinois youth.  Prior to an amendment to the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 in 2009 (taking effect in 2010), 17 year olds were treated as adults in the eyes of the criminal justice system when charged with a crime.  The amendment allowed for 17 year olds to be treated as juvenile delinquents if charged with a misdemeanor.  The legislation also mandated that the effect of the new law be studied and make recommendations as to the efficacy of affording the same status to 17 year olds charged with felonies.

Nationwide, minors are not considered adults until the age of 18, pointedly referred to as the age of majority.  As a consequence of being a minor, anyone under the age of 18, even a 17 year old, is unable to vote, buy tobacco products, join the military, etc.  If the country as a whole and states individually believe 17 year olds are “children” under the law, then why would they be treated as adults when charged with a crime?  This seems like an obvious flaw in the law, but apparently not for Illinois lawmakers.

Thankfully, the law is finally catching up with reality.  Under Public Act 098-0061, to become effective January 2014, 17 year olds charged with a felony will be treated as a juvenile rather than an adult for adjudication purposes.  The legislation signed into law this month advocates the promotion of rehabilitation for teens, fairness, public safety, and fiscal responsibility.

Now that all minors are treated fairly under the law, 17 year olds can receive age-appropriate services, likely continue their schooling, and have a higher probability of maturing into a well-adjusted young-adult rather than a hardened criminal lost to the system.  Proponents of juvenile justice reform cite research demonstrating that 17 year olds are still developing and do not have the same competence as adults.  Even aside from the scientific and development advantages treating minors as minors, are the dangers many of these teenagers face by going to prison; sexual abuse, dropping out of school, and making new criminal connections while there.  Certainly juvenile detention centers are not perfect and may be no better for many youth, but the flexibility of the Juvenile Court may allow some offenders to be on house arrest, community service, counseling, and other types of rehabilitative oriented solutions.

It’s not unheard of for kids to get into trouble, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of their future.  A minor shouldn’t be penalized long after his release by being marked a “felon” the rest of his life.  If you or a loved one is facing the criminal justice system, be sure to contact a qualified Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney immediately to secure aggressive legal representation.