Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle embarked this year on one of the most daunting missions of her long public service career: Changing an entrenched state law that determines the fate of numerous young people punished for serious crimes.
Despite initial opposition from law enforcement and county prosecutors, Preckwinkle set out to alter a statute that required thousands of juveniles, some as young as 13, to automatically be tried in adult court when accused of certain felonies—a process known in legal circles as “automatic transfers”.
Preckwinkle argued that automatic transfers were ripe for reform because they often block judicial discretion in cases when it was merited; discriminate against minorities; and raise the government’s cost by using adult incarceration when less-expensive juvenile rehabilitation programs would be more effective.
Supported by a unique coalition of social justice advocates and fiscal conservatives, Preckwinkle’s bipartisan plan prevailed during a legislative session that’s been marked by unprecedented rancor between a Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.
“Toni Preckwinkle made a big investment in this, bringing her experience in office as well as some political heft,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, (D-Buffalo Grove-57th), who sponsored the bill in the Illinois House. “She was able to appeal to the right with fiscal issues and to the left with criminal justice reform.”
Automatic transfers woes
Preckwinkle, who began running for public office in the early 1980s, asserted that automatic transfers were harmful because they prevented judges from using their discretion and stopped them from moving cases through juvenile court, where the focus is primarily on restoration, not punishment.
And if a juvenile should be tried in adult court, Preckwinkle wanted that decision to be made by a judge rather than having it made automatically.
Moreover, Illinois is one of 14 states that don’t require a hearing before a youth charged with certain felonies is transferred to criminal court.
“When judicial discretion is removed from the criminal justice process, as in the case of automatic transfers, the outcomes for individuals and communities are worse,” Preckwinkle said.
“Automatic transfers are the most extreme example of disproportionate impact. It mainly affects young people who are black or brown,” Preckwinkle said.
The County Board president’s apprehensions were echoed by the Evanston-based Juvenile Justice Initiative, which advocates for juvenile justice reforms.
The nonprofit’s study of the Cook County court system found that from 2010-2012, there were 257 cases where juveniles were automatically transferred to adult court.
In 90 percent of the cases, the defendants entered a guilty plea, and 54 percent of those defendants agreed to plea bargains that reduced the charges to crimes that would not have triggered the transfer.
Once convicted, Illinois law then required the juvenile to be tried in adult court for any subsequent crime, so once a young offender entered the adult system they stayed.
Moreover, the study found that automatic transfers increased costs for incarceration. A youth tried in the juvenile system spends about 25 days in detention, which costs about $15,000.
But a youth spends about 220 days in the adult court system at a cost of $132,000.
The research also showed that of the 257 transfers, only one juvenile was white; 83 percent were African-American and 16 percent Hispanic.
“The guilty pleas, the plea bargains and the racial disparities were troubling,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
Courts probe transfer rules
A pair of recent court rulings were also motivating factors in sparking changes to the automatic transfer rules.
In Miller vs. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. The high court pointed to studies of brain development in children, and stated that sentencing should include consideration of adolescent immaturity and inability to fully comprehend risks and consequences.
Meanwhile in October 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court in People vs. Patterson expressed reservations about the lack of any judicial input in the automatic transfer system.
The court urged the Illinois General Assembly to review automatic transfers “based on the current scientific and sociological evidence, including a need for the exercise of judicial discretion in determining the appropriate setting for the proceedings in these juvenile cases.”
Preckwinkle’s reform idea was not new. In fact, others in the past tried changing the law and failed. Among the obstacles was major opposition from police and prosecutors who viewed altering automatic transfers as watering down the law.
Yet sensing the impetus for reform was building, Preckwinkle assembled criminal justice advocates in December 2014 to declare that changing the automatic transfer law would be a top legislative initiative in the coming year.
A month later, she expanded her base when the area’s key business and civic leaders were urged to rally around the cause during a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day luncheon at the Union League Club of Chicago.
Soon, the Union League Club of Chicago, the Illinois Bar Association, the PTA of Illinois, JJL and other groups joined the reform. The BGA policy team also backed the proposed changes.
(At the BGA, the policy team operates separately from the investigative reporting unit.)
“She brought to the table people of different backgrounds and points of view. She built bi-partisan support,” said David Kohn, executive director of public affairs for the Union League Club of Chicago.
Another building block was addressing the concerns of law enforcement and county prosecutors to get their support.
For this daunting task, Preckwinkle called on her chief of staff, Kimberly Foxx, a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney who worked in the juvenile justice bureau.
Tension arose because Preckwinkle, the County Board president since 2009, was seeking a complete rollback of the automatic transfer law while Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, lead negotiator for prosecutors across the state, was being told by her colleagues that they wanted to maintain some elements of the current law, especially for the most violent crimes.
(There would be more tension to come since Foxx is now running against incumbent Alvarez in the race for Cook County State’s Attorney.)
One of the people advising Alvarez was Matt Jones, associate director of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, the agency that represents the State of Illinois on criminal appeal cases. Jones also is the principal lobbyist for the agency.
“We drew the line on what was punishable and what wasn’t,” Jones said. “In the juvenile justice system, a 17-year-old committing murder could be out in five years. We felt that certain crimes – murder, rape and aggravated battery with a firearm – should remain in adult court, where there are stronger sentences.”
Foxx said the negotiations were at times heated.
“It wasn’t easy. We worked on it for six or seven months before we came to agreement,” Foxx said.
While she wasn’t able to convince prosecutors to completely eliminate automatic transfers, limiting the transfers to 17 and 18 year olds and reducing the number of eligible crimes were significant accomplishments, Foxx said.
“The compromises were things we could live with,” Foxx said. “It will greatly reduce the number of juveniles who are automatically transferred to adult court. It restores judicial discretion to 70 percent of the cases that are now automatically transferred.”
For her part, Alvarez said the hardball negotiations and final bill offered community protection while recognizing the need for modifications.
“I fully understand and recognize that arrest, prosecution and incarceration are not proper long term solutions for most juvenile offenders,” Alvarez said to the BGA in a statement. “On the other hand, there are some very violent youthful offenders who commit violent crimes and need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law to protect our communities.”
Social justice, fiscal restraint
In the end, Preckwinkle and social justice advocates backed off on some of the reforms they sought while law enforcement and prosecutors gave up some of the stricter punishments.
As for Springfield, Preckwinkle brought something for both political parties: Democrats connected with the plan’s criminal justice reforms; Republicans clicked with the cost savings argument.
With broad-based support in place, Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago 13th) sponsored a bill the Senate approved in May. The Illinois House, with Rep. Nekritz taking the lead, followed with its approval in June.
Governor Rauner signed the bill it into law in August. As is his practice, the governor did not make any remarks about the bill or hold a signing ceremony.
The new law alters provisions for certain juvenile crimes that were first passed by Illinois General Assembly in 1982, an era when lawmakers statewide and nationally pledged to get tough on crime.
The original state law required that juveniles as young as 15 should automatically be tried as adults for murder, sexual assault and armed robbery with a firearm.
In subsequent years, the law was expanded to include drug and weapon violations within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing.
In 1995, a law was passed stating that children as young as 13 were automatically tried in adult court on charges of murder in the course of a sexual assault.
Now, the reform law makes the following changes:
- Children under age 16 will be tried in juvenile court regardless of the crime.
- Suspects ages 16 and 17 will be automatically transferred to adult court when charged with murder aggravated criminal sexual assault or aggravated battery with a firearm.
- Teens ages 15-17 will remain in juvenile court if charged with armed robbery, aggravated vehicular hijacking, or unlawful use of a weapon on school grounds, unless a judge decides they should be transferred to adult court. Under the old law, they were automatically transferred.
“Toni Preckwinkle really championed this cause. It was her effort that moved things forward,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
Reflecting on the experience, Preckwinkle said that while she wasn’t able to totally eliminate the automatic transfer system, she is encouraged that she was able to forge an agreement that will result in fewer juveniles being tried in adult court.
“It took a lot of effort from many people,” Preckwinkle said, “but we were able to come up with a consensus to reverse some of the laws that had such a dramatic impact on youth, especially those of color. It ensures that more children who make one major mistake have a chance to redeem themselves.”