UPDATED: General Assembly approves criminal sentencing reforms for minors
State Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, speaks on the floor of the state Senate. He passed a measure this week that would reform criminal sentencing for minors. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)
Measure supported by coalition of victim advocates
By ANDREW ADAMS
Capitol News Illinois
CHICAGO – Illinois lawmakers have approved a measure that reforms criminal sentencing for minors, particularly victims of child sex trafficking.
House Bill 3414 adds to the factors that judges must consider in the process of sentencing children found guilty of a crime. The bill would require a judge to consider a child’s involvement in the child welfare system, whether they have a history of domestic abuse or sexual exploitation and the results of any mental health evaluations the child has gone through. This is in addition to existing factors that judges already consider, such as age, maturity and potential for rehabilitation.
The bill also creates a method for judges to depart from sentencing guidelines, including mandatory minimums, or to transfer a minor offender to juvenile court for sentencing.
Judges may do so if they find “by clear and convincing evidence” that the child’s crime was committed against someone who had, in the past three years, committed one of several specified crimes against the child, such as sexual abuse or forced prostitution.
The bill also adds to the factors judges must consider when a prosecutor asks to transfer a case to adult court. These new factors include whether the child has any involvement in the child welfare system, whether the child was subjected to “outside pressure” and the child’s degree of participation in the crime.
The measure passed 33-20 in the Senate Wednesday after passing the House on a 67-40 vote on March 22. It can become law with a signature from the governor.
Proponents of the bill say it is part of a nationwide movement to include protections in law for victims of child sex trafficking. These laws are sometimes called “Sara’s Law” after Sara Kruzan, a survivor of child sex trafficking who killed her trafficker in 1995. After being sentenced to life in prison, Kruzan’s sentence was later commuted, allowing her to be paroled in 2013. In 2022, Kruzan was granted a pardon by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“We’re giving the courts extra opportunities to check and see: Was this victim brought into this situation because of some sort of trauma?” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, said in an interview.
The bill was supported by a coalition of state and national advocacy groups including the Juvenile Justice Initiative, the Women’s Justice Institute, Rights4Girls, the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Assault, or CAASE, took a leading role in pushing for the bill.
“There’s an understanding that youth require more support and more compassion than our system gives them,” Madeleine Behr, CAASE’s policy director, said in an interview.
Behr also said the bill is part of an ongoing movement toward racial justice in the criminal legal system.
“This is going to be really important for Black and brown girls in particular,” Behr said.
A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2011 found that over a two-year period, victims of sex trafficking were disproportionately Black and disproportionately Hispanic.
In the past few years Illinois has passed several high-profile criminal justice reform laws, including the broad-ranging SAFE-T Act that is currently under review by the Illinois Supreme Court. The high court heard oral arguments in March around several constitutional questions related to the bill.
Republicans in the Senate raised concerns with the bill, mostly around the fact that judges will have to consider additional factors even when the perpetrator has not been the victim of abuse or trafficking.
“The crimes we are talking about, where a person is being transferred to adult court, these are not retail theft,” Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, said. “These are not minor crimes. These are the worst of the worst.”
McClure added that some of the provisions in the bill already have similar considerations in law, such as if there was involvement in the Department of Children and Family Services or if the parent had been found to be neglectful or abusive.
“In situations where there should be leniency, the tools are already in our statute to provide for leniency,” he said.
Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, said the bill is a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for young offenders.
Senate Minority Leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, said the bill would make it more difficult for prosecutors to crack down on things like carjacking in the city and suburbs, something he called “an epidemic of violence.”
“This bill is going to make it more difficult in prosecuting and enforcing those crimes,” Curran said.
Curran also criticized the expanded list of factors judges would have to consider in sentencing.
“This bill now has a factor that a judge must consider: Was the accused offender subject to peer pressure? Not sure how that’s relevant,” he said.
Simmons defended the bill after it passed by saying it would not require judges to do anything other than take more information into consideration.
“This legislation gives judges the space to look at these other categories,” Simmons said. “But the legislation does not put a thumb on the scales of justice.”
Editor’s note: A previous characterization of the circumstances in which a judge can depart from sentencing guidelines has been corrected. The judge may do so when there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the child was a victim of certain crimes regardless of whether the alleged perpetrator had been convicted.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.