Jury selection is often a very unpredictable time fWhen I was first requested to write this article, the suggested topic was the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1998. It was certainly an appropriate request, in light of the fact that Gary Duerkoop, Deputy Chief of the Juvenile Division in my office, and I were participants in the drafting of the Reform Act. Instead of simply focusing on the new Act, I thought I would offer a broader perspective which includes measures that were under way in DuPage County long before our legislators began debating the reform.
The momentum for juvenile justice reform was prompted by public concern over increased incidence of violent juvenile crime. Across the nation, State legislators responded with measures which were far reaching, altering the policy and practice of juvenile courts.1 Illinois, as the first state to found a juvenile court, has long been looked to for leadership in juvenile justice reform. But, perhaps unexpectedly, Illinois was one of the last states to enact sweeping reform with the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1998.
While the Illinois General Assembly was debating juvenile justice reform measures, change was occurring across the State, at the County level, including DuPage. Juvenile justice professionals recognized that effective detection, intervention and prevention strategies for juvenile offenders depend on complete and accurate information about the background of each youth who enters the system. Unfortunately, prior to 1996, there was no mechanism for tracking juveniles. The absence of such a system limited the abilities of decision makers to answer basic questions which related to both the individual offender and the broader questions of how we respond to different types of juvenile crimes. Under the auspices of the Chief Judge, in 1995 a committee was formed to study the creation of a juvenile justice database for DuPage County which would be accessible to juvenile justice professionals to answer basic questions regarding individual offenders and for use by policy makers. In 1996, the DuPage database became operational, and thus far, has proven to be a great improvement, although some users are still not entering data. Effective January 1, 2000, there will be a state-wide database where a minor’s offending history can be accessed by juvenile justice professionals to assist them in making critical decisions.
The exercise of appropriate prosecutorial discretion is just as essential, if not more so, in juvenile court as it is in adult criminal cases. Yet, prior to 1994, it was often months after the crime before a prosecutor was consulted about a juvenile case in DuPage County. In cases where the police were seeking to have a delinquency petition filed, or a preliminary conference and formal supervision, they would send copies of police reports to the probation department for screening. If the probation officer felt that a juvenile petition should be filed, the probation officer would then forward the reports to the State’s Attorney’s Office for an additional review. This system resulted in delays of up to six months or more before any formal charging decision was made. The message we were sending was that "juvenile justice is on hold" and that accountability and responsibility were not priorities in our system. Equally important, prosecutors were being deprived of the opportunity to evaluate the legal sufficiency of a case at a time when the evidence was still fresh. This system may have been adequate for misdemeanors and minor felonies committed by first time offenders, but it was not acceptable for serious felonies and for misdemeanors committed by chronic offenders. In the Fall of 1996, the State’s Attorney’s Office created a juvenile screening function which requires police to contact an Assistant State’s Attorney on the day of arrest for all felonies, which has long been the case for adult offenders. The felony screening function allows us to test the sufficiency of a case before the juvenile enters the system. Equally important, when a decision is made to file a petition, the juvenile and parents are served immediately and given a court date. The message we are sending is that accountability and responsibility are priorities. This approach, in combination with the database, gives us the opportunity to do several things:
1 identify potential chronic offenders at the earliest possible time;
2 provide swift intervention and effective prosecution of high risk offenders;
3 screen out those cases that do not belong in the system and on which we were spending valuable time and resources;
4 access to a county-wide resource for obtaining information useful in solving crimes;
5 assist the Court in making disposition decisions by providing complete criminal history information.
A frequent source of frustration for victims of juvenile crime were the restrictions placed on juvenile justice professionals in sharing information with victims. In the Fall of 1997, my office included victims of juvenile crime in the services provided by our staff, including:
1 notification that a petition or criminal charge was filed;
2 the right to seek restitution;
3 the right to ask for and receive protection from intimidation, harassment and harm;
4 the right to make victim impact statements;
5 information regarding dispositions;
6 referral services.
The Reform Act of 1998 incorporated the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act into juvenile court proceedings. While this was seen as a major step forward by victims’ rights advocates, the general assembly recently dealt a blow to victims with the passage of House Bill 90 (Public Act 91-479). This law deleted a provision of the delinquency statute which gave police officers discretion to release offender identification information to victims as long as the juvenile’s safety was not endangered. Now, victims must come to court and prove by clear and convincing evidence that he/she needs the information to pursue a civil case or for protection. This law will lead to further frustration for crime victims along with leaving several questions unanswered, such as who represents the juvenile crime victim in these hearings. The law also cuts against the new policy for juvenile justice - the balanced and restorative justice model – which puts greater emphasis on recognizing the rights of crime victims and the community. One of the most important goals of this model is to give victims the information they need in order to feel safe in their homes and communities. It is hard to reconcile this new change with this goal. Hopefully, this recent departure does not represent a trend.
Juvenile Justice is a team sport and meaningful change requires input and cooperation from all of its players. That is exactly what we experienced in DuPage County over the course of the last several years. The Chief Judge, the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff, Probation, the Public Defender’s Office, the County Board, school officials and community leaders all participated in and endorsed positive change. We set aside our "tunnel vision" approach to problem solving and agreed to work together. I believe this is the reason the General Assembly looked to DuPage County in 1997 when dramatic reforms were being discussed in Springfield. The House Committee on Juvenile Reform held hearings in DuPage County and listened to testimony from all the players. Gary Duerkoop of my office along with Kathy Ryan from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office were recruited to work on the legislation along with a coalition representing every discipline that is involved in juvenile justice. Seeking insight and input from everyone who has a genuine interest in this issue, this group of volunteers spent endless hours debating and drafting what emerged as the most comprehensive juvenile justice reform bill in the nation.
Contrary to popular belief, Illinois did not simply adopt a "get tough" approach on juvenile offenders. In fact, the Reform Act does not contain any provisions that will increase the number of juveniles who may be automatically transferred to adult court. On the other hand, it does provide prosecutors and judges with additional sentencing options that will allow them to impose meaningful sanctions on juvenile offenders before they commit those serious offenses that will land them in adult court. The balanced and restorative justice model balances three broad concepts in juvenile justice:
1 Protect the community.
2 Impose accountability.
3 Equip juvenile offenders with competencies to live responsibly and productively. (705 ILCS 405/5-101)
Among the provisions that address accountability are changes in the definition and use of station adjustments which have traditionally been regarded as an informal handling of a juvenile offender by a juvenile police officer. There are now two types of station adjustments: "formal" and "informal". The Act also places limits on the type and number of station adjustments an offender may receive without prior approval from the State’s Attorney’s Office (see 705 ILCS 5/5-300).
A more controversial provision of the Act is "extended jurisdiction juvenile" (EJJ), which has also been referred to as "blended sentencing." 705 ILCS 405/5-810.
Under these provisions, the State’s Attorney files a petition prior to trial which gives the Court the option of imposing both a juvenile and an adult sentence following a finding of guilty. The adult sentence is suspended, however, and only imposed if the juvenile violates the terms of his/her juvenile sentence or commits a criminal offense. In cases involving the commission of a new offense, the adult sentence must be served. If the violation is other than a new offense, the Court has the discretion to continue the juvenile on the existing sentence with or without modification. It is the hope and belief of juvenile justice professionals that EJJ will provide a meaningful deterrent that was previously unavailable.
For most juvenile justice professionals, one of the best reform measures is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2000. That is the creation of a central repository for juvenile offender history. This important reform will assist greatly in early intervention, allowing the juvenile justice system to become involved in a minor’s life well before his/her offending escalates into serious crime. Under the Act, DCFS and school records may now be made available to juvenile authorities prior to adjudication. These information sharing provisions allow access to critical information regarding a minor. Access to this important information will allow the sentencing judge to look at the entire picture of an offender’s life and to direct resources where they are most needed.
Increased community and victim involvement are key aspects of the Reform Act. Among the measures designed to insure that these goals are achieved are:
1 A legislative declaration that a major component of delinquency prevention is a series of immediate interaction programs designed by the community (405/5-300).
2 Station adjustment reforms (405/5-301).
3 Community Mediation (405/5-310).
4 Teen Court (405/5-315).
Community interaction and partnerships designed to respond to and reduce delinquency will not occur without sound leadership. The Act provides that this leadership may come from Juvenile Justice Councils which may be established on a countywide or circuit-wide basis throughout the state. The purpose of a council is:
to provide a forum for the development of a community-based interagency assessment of the local juvenile justice system, to develop a county juvenile justice plan for the prevention of juvenile delinquency, and to make recommendations to the County Board…
705 ILCS 504/6-12
I took steps to form DuPage County’s Juvenile Justice Council as soon as the law was signed by Governor Edgar. The membership on the council includes representatives from all segments of the juvenile justice system and the community, including schools, park districts, the church, hospitals and business. We have drafted a mission statement, by-laws, and adopted planning goals. We soon expect to receive Juvenile Justice Accountability Block Grant Funds which will be used in developing prevention, intervention and treatment strategies designed to address issues of community protection, offender accountability and competency development. These tasks are daunting, but they will be accomplished. One thing that became clear during our initial meetings is that our members are energized and ready for the challenge.
1 "State Responses to Serious and Violent Juvenile Crime," Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, July 1996.
Joesph E. Birkett was elected State’s Attorney of DuPage County in 1996. Prior to that, Joe was the Chief of the Criminal Division, having worked his way up the ranks of the office since starting as an Assistant in 1981. Joe graduated from the John Marshall Law School in 1981. Joe is a member of the DuPage County Bar Association, the ISBA and the ABA. He serves as Vice President of the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation and is a past member of the Board of Directors for the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor’s Office.