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Lawmakers aim to keep children under 13 out of jail

By Dana Vollmer

SPRINGFIELD — Legislation being considered in the Illinois House would raise the age for locking up children accused of a crime.

Children as young as 10 can be detained under current law. Some lawmakers want to raise that to age 13.

State Rep. Robyn Gabel, who sponsors the legislation, said even one day in detention can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

“There’s an implication here that these children are just horrible, horrible people and have done horrible crimes,” Gabel said. “But … in 2016, there were nine children who were detained based on probation violations. Those are not heinous crimes. There were no children detained based on charges of homicide.”

That year, the majority of kids ages 10 to 13 were detained in four counties: Cook, Peoria, Sangamon and Winnebago.

Cook County has since attempted to impose its own rule against locking up kids in that age range.

But Ashley Wright, with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, said there are few alternatives for where to hold them.

“The kids that we’re talking about are usually accused of very violent offenses, and we can’t get them into youth services,” she said. “We don’t know if we can require a foster home to take these youths. The other problem that we would have is that the licensing standard for youth emergency services … the minimum age for shelters is 14.”

Lack of services resulted in 120 kids being locked up last year, advocates said.

Opponents of the legislation, like John McCabe with the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association, argue that juvenile detention is already low — and the ones that get jailed are experiencing significant issues.

“Fewer than one juvenile in 1,000 that are arrested are asked to go to detention as it is now,” McCabe said, adding those 120 kids are a fraction of the more than 10,000 juveniles detained every year.

But Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said detention centers, who are reimbursed by the state for each child detained, have a vested interest in keeping more kids locked up.

Rep. Gabel said she’s working with the Department of Human Services to find alternative placement options.

The legislation is HB1468.

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