In Get-Tough Step, Illinois Plans To Reveal Criminal Youths' Names
CHICAGO — AS part of a nationwide trend toward punishing young criminals with adult penalties, Illinois lawmakers have passed a bill that would make public the names of juveniles guilty of severe crimes.
The bill waives the guarantee of confidentiality for youths convicted of crimes involving gangs, guns, or certain drug-related offenses. The law was approved by the state Senate on May 13 and awaits the signature of Gov. Jim Edgar (R).
Illinois is one of 14 states considering laws that would broaden the jurisdiction of the criminal courts into areas long covered by juvenile courts. Currently, there are 67 such bills before state legislatures, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures in Denver.
The law recently approved by the Illinois Assembly would allow for the publication of the name of a criminal under the age of 17 who was convicted of a serious crime. It aims to alert parents to the youths whom their children should not befriend, State Sen. Edward Petka (R) says.
But critics say that by stigmatizing youthful offenders, the law will undermine the likelihood they will forgo crime.
The Illinois Assembly is also debating a bill that would transfer the cases of 15-year-olds charged with extreme offenses from juvenile to adult criminal court. The laws are part of a national groundswell in anticrime measures aimed at mollifying voter anxiety over persistent lawlessness.
Most states already try juveniles in criminal court for especially heinous crimes. Many of the laws before state legislatures would lower the age for trial as an adult, broaden the crimes for which youths are tried as adults, or allow for the transfer of a youth into criminal court without formal review by a judge.
Critics say the shift in emphasis from the rehabilitation to punishment of juvenile offenders will only reinforce criminal behavior. State governments should, instead, try to solve the basic causes for youth crime the way the problems of unemployment, poverty, drugs, and single parenting are handled.
``There is a distressing trend to make the juvenile justice system more like the adult criminal justice system, to make it more of a punitive model,'' says Randolph Stone, director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
``The rationale seems to be to treat children more like adults because of the perception that they are just little criminals,'' Mr. Stone says. ``There is little recognition that it is essentially an adult responsibilty when kids are engaging in crimes.''
Yet proponents of the laws say many of the nation's underage criminals are too nefarious for a juvenile court system set up decades ago to handle a young population far more law-abiding than that of today.
Between 1985 and 1991, the number of Illinois youths between the ages of 10 and 17 who were arrested for violent crimes jumped 71 percent. Nationwide, the number of youths under 18 arrested for violent crimes rose 47 percent from 1988 until 1992, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
``We have a different juvenile offender than we had 30 years ago,'' says State Rep. Tom Cross (R), a sponsor of the bill waiving confidentiality.
``When you have drive-by shootings taking place and 15-year-old kids selling cocaine, those guys - or girls - are in a different category than those who have busted a window or stolen hubcaps,'' Mr. Cross says.
As a result, ``there is a shift in the general philosophy of juvenile court'' away from redemption and toward retribution, he adds.
Lawmakers are largely targeting hard-core gang members and drug pushers who are in their mid-teens. Juveniles who have committed lesser crimes will still be handled by juvenile court, Mr. Petka says. ``We're not dealing with individuals who will be rehabilitated anytime soon, we're dealing with serious, serious offenders,'' he adds.