Youth Doing Hard Time For Nonviolent Crime In Illinois

In Illinois, Many Teens Are Doing Hard Time For Nonviolent Crime

When Derrick Reed was born, he was fragile and addicted to crack. With his drug addicted mother and drug-selling father out of the picture, he was raised by his grandparents and considered himself a "typical teenager"--until $75 in heroin landed him in adult prison at the age of 17.

Illinois is one of only 12 states that will automatically throw minors facing felony charges into the adult penal system, according to the Chicago Reporter. Instead of teens taking classes and interacting with their peers--hoping to turn things around after juvenile detention--many Illinois teens end up in the Cook County Jail, watching television and sitting in a cell all day.

In a story titled "Seventeen," journalists from the Chicago Reporter share insight from public defenders, teenage felons, juvenile justice activists and judges about whether charging a teen as an adult for a nonviolent offense is a good idea--or a big mistake.

"In no other arena are we willing to look at 17-year-olds as adults," Randell Strickland told the Reporter. Strickland is the Illinois disproportionate minority contact coordinator of the McArthur Foundation's Models for Change program. "We're killing flies with sledgehammers. It's not only wasting resources, but wasting lives."

According to data obtained by the Reporter, 54 percent of 17-year-olds prosecuted in Cook County's adult court system were convicted for drug deals and property theft alone, 58 percent for nonviolent offenses--most of which were "low-level drug offenses."

The story also notes that 77 percent of these jailed 17-year-olds are black, and from some of the most impoverished parts of the city.

"Why are we giving young people felony records that will haunt them for the rest of their lives?" Liz Kooy, a member of the Illinois-based advocacy group the Juvenile Justice Initiative asked the Reporter.

According to the story, the state is looking into whether some of these laws should be changed. Gov. Pat Quinn assembled a 25-member commission in January, who, based on research, will share their recommendations with the state by 2012.

For more about Reed and other people involved with the incarceration of nonviolent Illinois teens, read the entire Reporter story here.

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