ROCKFORD — One local lawmaker expressed skepticism toward raising the juvenile age of criminal responsibility beyond 17 in Illinois, and another said he flat-out opposed it.

Nonetheless, rumors that the age will be raised in the near future are fueling discussions that now may be the right time to move the Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center on Northrock Drive to a bigger location.

The location in mind? The mostly vacant Public Safety Building, home of the former Winnebago County Jail in downtown Rockford, which is already at the center of a larger conversation involving the consolidation of court services.

Winnebago County Board Member, Burt Gerl, who chairs the board’s Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, and other county board members met earlier this month with Chief Judge John Lowry and learned it is not a matter if the age will be raised, but when.

"We’ve been told that it’s not going to happen this session, but it will happen soon," Gerl said. "There’s gonna be a lot of moving pieces, but this is definitely something that we need to look at, and we need to look at it now."

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Local lawmakers question age change

State Rep. Dave Vella, D-Rockford, said he is not opposed to relocating the juvenile detention center to downtown Rockford but fears raising the juvenile age limit may do more harm than good.

State Rep. Dave Vella, pictured at a news conference April 7, 2021, said he is opposed to raising the state’s juvenile age limit.

"The problem is the juvenile court system is overloaded as it is," Vella said. "So, if we add more kids, which is what would happen if we raise the juvenile age, it would just overwhelm the courts more and then less kids would get the services that they need."

Vella, who is an attorney, said his skepticism about raising the age limit stems from first-hand knowledge of the juvenile court system.

"I just don’t think it will work, at least not for Winnebago County," he said. "I really don’t know the (juvenile court) system in Cook. So, I don’t know how they are doing, but we need as many services as we can for these kids."

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Cherry Valley, said he would "strongly oppose" any bill that raises the juvenile age.

"Some of the most serious, heinous crimes are being committed by these individuals who are certainly younger than 18, and they are well aware of their decisions that they are making," he said.

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Syverson also spoke of the propensity of gang members to use juveniles to commit serious crimes knowing that juvenile records can be sealed and the punishment is not as severe as being charged as an adult.

Dave Syverson of Cherry Valley is an Illinois state senator.

Juvenile vs. adult court

Relocating the detention center sooner rather than later to downtown as part of an overall goal to centralize all judiciary services could be an advantageous move on the part of the County Board as it has funds to consider it, Gerl said.

The county received $27.4 million on July 1 and will receive another $27.4 million this summer thanks to the American Rescue Plan, federal dollars committed to municipalities to aid in the recovery from economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just how much money is the board willing to commit to Public Safety Building proposals and other projects has yet to be hashed out.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures: "Proponents of ‘raise-the-age’ legislation believe young people should be tried in juvenile court to ensure that they are not sentenced to adult prisons and that they have access to more age-appropriate services and placement options to meet their specialized needs.

"They argue that the legal system should treat children as children, not as adults, based on the latest neurological, social and behavioral science research and analysis that distinguish juveniles from adult offenders. Research also has found that juveniles in adult prisons experience higher rates of physical and sexual abuse and suicide, and are less likely to be rehabilitated than those in juvenile facilities."

Currently, anyone 17 and under is considered a juvenile in Illinois. But not every child charged with a crime goes to juvenile court. In very serious crimes, youths over 15 can be tried in adult criminal court.

Statewide advocacy organizations like the Juvenile Justice Initiative support raising the age to 21 "to bring our court system in line with research that shows young adults (people ages 18-21) are more similar to juveniles than adults in terms of criminal offending."

Illinois passed legislation in 2015 requiring juvenile records to be automatically expunged when the offender reaches age 18, if the crime committed was a low-level offense and if the offender has not been arrested in the last six months.

Chris Green:; @chrisfgreen

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Lawmakers in Rockford oppose raising Illinois juvenile age limit

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February 23, 2022 at 06:52AM