Fewer Illinois youth in prison since raising criminal-responsibility age

Image by Lisa Kennedy from Pixabay

By Lily Bohlke, Public News Service

The number of kids and teens behind bars has decreased since Illinois raised the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, according to a new report.

When the change was made, the report by The Sentencing Project pointed out it was expected raising the age would be costly and increase caseloads in the juvenile system.

Elizabeth Clarke, president and founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said neither probation caseloads nor cases going to court went up, and the state has even been able to close three youth prisons, although Clarke said there is still work to be done.

“As you raise the age, it tends to benefit kids who are white and middle-class, and you’re left with even more profound racial disparities,” Clarke explained. “We need to look at these, and understand that we can do better.”

Clarke added diversion programs in the juvenile justice system are far more effective at reducing the chances of recidivism than youth incarceration. She hopes Illinois will continue on this trajectory, and raise the age to 19 or 21.

Marcy Mistrett, senior fellow at The Sentencing Project and the report’s author, noted advocates in several states are working to raise the age of criminal responsibility even higher than 18. In Vermont, for instance, it is 19.

Mistrett confirmed research has shown young people’s brains are still developing until roughly age 25.

“With those emerging adults, we need to understand that young people are still very impulsive,” Mistrett urged. “They’re still growing, they’re still maturing, and they should get some of these protections extended to them.”

The report showed Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin are the only remaining states to automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults when they’re arrested.

Nationally, the report demonstrated nearly 100,000 young people have entered the juvenile system because of raise-the-age laws. It recommended states and municipalities invest in community-based services rather than incarceration.