Juvenile definition takes step in wrong direction

Times-News editorial board

As of Jan. 1, names of youth 17 years of age, or younger, will no longer be printed in this publication’s arrest reports and police news.

It is not part of a policy change within this newsroom. Instead, it was a change at the state level that seemed to catch newsrooms off guard throughout Illinois.

As part of the new Illinois law, 17 year olds who commit a misdemeanor crime are no longer considered adults. A 17 year old suspected of a felony would be charged as an adult.

Those unfamiliar with juvenile rules should know that, prior to this change, we printed the names of individuals 17 years of age or older — felony or misdemeanor.

The new law prompted local law enforcement agencies, such as the Morton Police Department, to no longer release the names of any 17 year olds who commit either a felony or misdemeanor. Although, technically, the perpetrator of a felony would be tried as an adult, local law enforcement authorities say they fear legal complications should the charges be lessened or dropped by the Tazewell County State’s Attorney.

 Newsrooms throughout Illinois have varying opinions on the matter. The Illinois Press Association queried newspapers’ responses to the change.

One unidentified newspaper provided this response:

“Interestingly, for years our circuit court has released the listing of juveniles convicted of traffic offenses through the listing of who paid fines, etc. Sadly, the legislature went the exact opposite way they should have gone. As our society changes, minors have become increasingly more involved in more significant crimes at younger and younger ages ... We really need to get this legislation redone and the age dropped to 15, if not 14.”

Another newspaper simply went along with the changes:

“We will adjust our policy to mirror this change in law.”

Not this newspaper — our editorial staff tends to lean toward the first argument. Many on this staff believe that once a teenager is able to drive a vehicle —  a potentially dangerous weapon — they should be considered adults.

Along with the responsibilities of driving come new freedoms: the ability to come and go as one pleases (within the bounds of parental constraint), a choice of destinations and relative anonymity behind the wheel.

And, along with those freedoms should come accountability. Many 17 year olds are seniors in high school — young people just months away from leaving home for college or the workplace. They are mere months away from being adult enough to live alone, risk their lives in our military or, in some states, marry without parental consent.

Every day we hear of young people committing serious crimes at increasingly younger ages. Just look at the reports within theses pages.

In 2008, law enforcement agencies in the United States made an estimated 2.11 million arrests of persons younger than age 18, according to a 2008 bulletin by the  U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention which summarized juvenile crime data from the FBI report “Crime in the United States 2008.”

The bulletin stated that juveniles accounted for 16 percent of all violent crime arrests and 26 percent of all property crime arrests in 2008. Additionally, youth under 18 were involved in 12 percent of all violent crimes.

Why the state legislature chose to change the rules now is puzzling.

“I think it’s the state’s attempt of giving someone 17 one more shot of turning themselves around,” Morton Police Chief Nick Graff said.

Graff appreciates both sides of the argument and he said he really has no say in the matter. He will not deny the fact that youths are committing more crimes.

“I’ve seen a lot of 17-year-old burglars in my career,” he said.

Yet, state legislators want to extend more protection to these young lawbreakers — not less.

The way the law will be applied safeguards those charged with more serious crimes just in case the charge is dropped or reduced. thus, the names of most 17 years will never make the paper.

Once again it seems that the rights of the suspect trump the people’s right to know.

By printing crimes and the corresponding offenders in the newspaper, we alert residents to criminal activity, as well as the identity of the suspects. It is a matter of public safety.

If one commits a crime, there are consequences — including the embarrassment of of people knowing what you may have done.

Tying the media’s hands on this issue is not in the public’s best interest.