Lawmakers Want To Curtail Car Theft, But Juvenile Justice Groups Say Approach Is Wrong

May 4, 2018

The Illinois Senate approved a measure intended to provide courts with more guidance on what to do when a minor is caught with a stolen car. But some juvenile justice groups say lawmakers are missing the bigger picture.

It’s been called a much-needed anti-carjacking proposal for Chicago and surrounding suburbs. In 2017, Chicago police recorded about 1,000 carjackings – the highest number in a decade. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others are supporting a Senate-led plan, where kids caught in the act of stealing or using a stolen vehicle, would be detained but given a mental health evaluation to determine any future risks. The idea – they say – is to prevent repeat offending.

The Senate approved the measure without opposition.

But Stephanie Kollmann, policy director for the Children and Family Justice Center legal clinic at Northwestern University’s law school, said the measure doesn’t account for the individual circumstances and instead provides a one-size-fits-all approach. She said lawmakers are ignoring that sometimes minors don’t know they’re using a stolen car.  “If there is no proof that someone knows they’re in a stolen motor vehicle, simply charging and processing them as though they are, is the worst kind of solution to this kind of problem,” she said.

The measure outlines that if an officer believes a minor has stolen a car, the minor should then be detained to await a judge’s decision. A decision as to whether or not a car was stolen, “may be inferred from the surrounding facts and circumstances”, as described by language in the bill. A minor can then undergo a court-ordered psychological evaluation to determine if the minor is a risk. Pending the results, a minor would be kept in detention.

Kollmann said this moves back to presumption and ignores the idea of innocent until proven guilty.

The Children and Family Justice Center legal clinic – as well as other juvenile justice groups – have pushed to decrease the number of juveniles that get caught up in detention. They say they would like to see a restorative approach and avoid detention altogether.  Kollmann said more kids could end up in detention under this proposal.

According to a recent report published by the Juvenile Justice Initiative – a group based in Evanston –detention is harmful to kids. It says research has shown minors who go through detention have increased behavioral health issues, decreased graduation rates, and increased repeat offending.

Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said legislation should encourage judges to make informed decisions and consider each case individually. Instead, she said, these are failed policies that try to address larger issues.

But lawmakers who voted in favor of the measure said public safety is also an important factor to consider. State Sen. Michael Connelly, a Naperville Republican, said the measure would support Chicago Supt. Eddie Johnson and the Chicago police in doing their job to help secure the public. 

Others said the mental health approach included in the plan addresses the treatment of juveniles. During a Senate debate, state Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat, said that those minors often caught in the act of stealing a car or in possession of a stolen one, get released right away and return to offending. He says the measure would slow down this process. "But importantly, it [the measure] does not warehouse these youthful offenders, and ensures that they are getting treatment that they desperately need."

A similar bill introduced in the House earlier in the year did not garner sufficient support and was opposed by the same juvenile justice groups. 

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat,  said the Senate proposal addresses issues the House plan was missing. "It's important that we don't overstep and cast a net too wide such that we distinguish between those that are participating in a vehicular carjacking as opposed to those that are joyriding and lumped into the same pool," Raoul said during the same Senate debate. He voted in favor of the measure. 

Advocate groups say lawmakers are feeling pressured to find a quick fix, while not realizing that they might be carrying the legislation too far.  Stephanie Kollmann, from the Children and Family Justice Center legal clinic, said she hopes they reconsider the plan and look closely at the evidence already out there. "It's the job of the legislature to make sure that what they're passing, passes muster," she said.