Juvenile Injustice

Enforcement practices combined with a law that transfers 15- and 16- year olds charged with drug offenses into the adult legal system have made Cook County, Illinois the worst in the country when it comes to racial disparities in the treatment of young drug offenders, according to a new study. Of 393 youth transferred into adult court last year, over 99 percent were African American or Latino, and 99 percent of youth imprisoned for drug crimes in Cook County are non-White.

"While youth of color are over-represented in juvenile corrections facilities, jails and prisons for drug crimes across the country, no jurisdiction we’ve studied exhibits the degree of disparity we found in Illinois," said Mark Soler, coordinator of the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative, the group that commissioned the study from the Justice Policy Institute.

"Drugs and Disparity: The Racial Impact of Illinois’ Practice of Transferring Young Drug Offenders to Adult Court" analyzed state criminal justice data and compared it with national figures for arrest and imprisonment rates, as well as the racial breakdown of youth drug use and dealing. The study concluded that young people of color are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the state's automatic transfer laws, even though White youth are statistically more likely to use and deal drugs. The laws mandate that 15- and 16-year-old youth charged with a drug offense that occurs within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing project are automatically excluded from juvenile court.

"The data clearly show that the enormous impact of prosecution, imprisonment and collateral consequences for young drug offenders is not borne equitably by youth of different races and ethnicities," said Jason Ziedenberg, Senior Policy Analyst with the Justice Policy Institute, and author of the study. "Illinois’ 16-year experiment with automatic transfer for drug offenses does not affect suburban or rural White youth in a way even remotely comparable to the way it affects urban minority youth."

For instance, while African American youth make up 15.3 percent of Illinois’ youth population, African American youth are 59 percent of youth arrested for drug crimes, 85.5 percent of youth automatically transferred to adult court, 88 percent of the youth imprisoned for drug crimes statewide, and 91 percent of youth admitted to state prison from Cook County. Meanwhile, national figures for drug use show that white youth aged 12-17 are more than a third more likely to have sold drugs than African American youth, and white high school seniors use heroin and cocaine at rates 7 to 8 times that of their Black classmates.

Ziedenberg said the Illinois policy subverts the philosophy that says youthful offenders should be treated differently than adults. "What we know about the juvenile justice system is that it was designed to give second chances, so it was designed in a way that gives police, prosecutors and judges discretion," he said. "But this also makes enforcement more dependent on the biases of an individual community, which is why we see such huge disparities in the way young people are policed in Illinois."

National policies such as the drug provision of the Higher Education Act, which delays or denies financial aid to students with drug convictions, magnify the impact of racial disparities even more, Ziedenberg said.

"We really are saying to these 390 youth of color, you don't get a second chance," he said. "Unlike our President," he added.

Previous studies from the Justice Policy Institute have found that youth who are sent into the adult prison system are far more vulnerable to abuse, rape and suicide than those housed with other juveniles. "Whatever we think happens to youth in the adult system, lets not kid ourselves into thinking the impacts are borne proportionately by white youth and youth of color," Ziedenberg said. "The impacts are borne overwhelmingly by Black and Latino young people."

Rev. Charles Collins, chairmain of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative and pastor at the First Christian Church of Rockford, Illinois, called on state lawmakers to address what he called the unintended consequences of the automatic transfer laws. "Clearly, our justice system is a balanced and a restorative system. This is not a balanced and restorative law," he said. "We need to ask men of goodwill to stand up and do what's right for the state of Illinois."

Paul Simon, the former U.S. Senator from Illinois and director of Southern Illinois University's Public Policy Institute, also urged reform. "The racial disparities uncovered by this report are appalling and cry out for correction," he said.

The Illinois State's Attorney's office did not return calls seeking comment on the study.

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