SPRINGFIELD-Amid concerns the idea could strengthen gangs, the Illinois House passed legislation Tuesday to increase the age at which minors charged with low-level felonies could be kept separate from adults in jail and be tried in juvenile court.
The proposal passed the House by an 89-26 vote and would change the definition of a delinquent minor to include people who were under 18 - instead of 17 - at the time the person committed a felony.
"What it would do for a low-level felon is give them an opportunity to be treated in juvenile court where there are services available and to encourage those kids to move beyond a life of crime," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), the bill's chief sponsor.
However, under-18 felons who commit more serious felonies such as first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault or armed robbery with a firearm among others would still be tried in adult court.
According to Currie, similar measures exist in 38 other states, and her bill has support from the Illinois state's attorneys, the Illinois State Bar Association, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
At least one suburban Republican thought the measure would place a new advantage in the hands of gang members.
"As soon as this bill passes gangs will now use 17 year-olds to do more of the dirty work they couldn't do before...And they will know that their punishment is they will go to a juvenile detention home," Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) said.
"They aren't children. As a matter of fact they are quite intuitive. They are very genius. The gangs know this."
But some Downstate Republicans came to the measure's support.
"This is in my opinion a common sense piece of legislation...The fact remains that not all of Illinois is dealing with significant gang problems," Rep. Jim Sacia (R-Pecatonica) said. "There are many rural areas across the state of Illinois where many young people have an opportunity to be rehabbed."
The bill now moves to the Senate for further consideration.