SPRINGFIELD — The state’s highest court deadlocked Jan. 22 over how to interpret a state law that outlines the procedure judges must follow to sentence a minor who is found guilty of a crime to a state juvenile detention center.
The case, out of Rock Island County, raised the question of whether, under Illinois law, a judge must state directly in the court record that commitment to a juvenile detention facility is the “least restrictive” sentencing option.
The two-sentence opinion noted that Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Carter, who was appointed in November to replace former Justice Thomas Kilbride, recused himself, leaving only six justices to decide on the case.
When at least four justices of the Supreme Court cannot agree on a decision, the appellate court ruling being reviewed becomes the final decision. That means there is conflicting legal precedent in Illinois courts on this issue because two other appellate courts have ruled differently. The Supreme Court could rule on the precedent again in the future if a new case regarding the same issues comes before it.
In December 2019, the 3rd District Appellate Court ruled on the case that the Supreme Court was considering, which involved sentencing for a 14-year-old boy, referred to as J.M.A., who pleaded guilty to stealing a gun, a car and an iPhone.
Carter, who served on the 3rd District Appellate Court before being appointed to the Supreme Court, participated in that decision, which is now the final decision in the case.
The Illinois General Assembly added language to the Illinois Juvenile Court Act in 2012 that a judge must find detention is “least restrictive,” and provide “the reasons why efforts were unsuccessful in locating a less restrictive alternative to secure confinement.”
The amendment from 2012 also requires that “before the court commits a minor to the (juvenile detention facility), it shall make a finding that secure confinement is necessary, following a review of the following individualized factors.” Those seven individualized factors include age, criminal background and “physical, mental and emotional health of the minor.”
Before that change passed, the state Juvenile Court Act only required the judge to consider whether the minor’s parents are fit to discipline their child, and whether detaining the minor is in the best interest of the public.
In the December 2019 opinion, the 3rd District Appellate Court decided the judge who sentenced J.M.A. was not required to make a direct statement that juvenile detention was the “least restrictive” option because the judge in this case “explicitly contemplated a number of less restrictive options,” the opinion states.
The appellate court found that this requirement amounted to a judge reciting “magic words,” but a judge could still achieve the purpose of making this direct statement by evaluating other less restrictive options in the court record.
The 2019 appellate court ruling in the Rock Island County case conflicts with two other rulings on this question from two separate appellate court decisions in juvenile cases from 2016 and 2014.
In those two decisions, both the 1st District and 2nd District appellate courts found the language in the Illinois Juvenile Court Act requires a judge to make an explicit verbal or written finding that detention in a juvenile facility is the least restrictive sentence.
In the 2019 ruling, the appellate court found that the case before them was different from the decisions in 2014 and 2016 because the judges in those two cases did not consider less restrictive sentencing options.
“Insofar as either (the 2014 and 2016 cases) may be read as requiring the explicit recitation of certain words — ‘I find that a commitment to the (Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice) is the least restrictive alternative’ — we disagree with those rulings,” the 2019 opinion states.
“The court in this case provided a detailed explanation of less restrictive alternatives and the reasons they were inappropriate for (J.M.A.) Not only is this course acceptable under the Act, but we submit that it is actually preferable to a bare recitation of the ‘magic words’ without any further explanation.”
Dimitrios Golfis, who represents J.M.A., argued in a court brief that the Illinois Supreme Court should hear this case despite the fact that his client has been released from a juvenile detention facility because the issue is a matter of public interest.
“It involves a dispute regarding the legal basis and procedure for committing children to the IDOJJ. It also involves the safety of both the public and children and the liberty, rehabilitation, and competency development of children in the juvenile justice system,” wrote Golfis, an attorney with the State Appellate Defender’s Office.
Golfis wrote in the brief that the conflict among appellate courts on the issue is another reason the Illinois Supreme Court should hear the case. Golfis didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Shobha L. Mahadev, a clinical professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, said it is disappointing that the Illinois Supreme Court did not take this opportunity to reaffirm the importance of the provisions of the Juvenile Court Act requiring that imprisonment be the sentence of last resort for Illinois youth.
“Research demonstrates that incarceration is particularly harmful for children, their families, and communities. It is also often costly and ineffective at addressing the root causes for why children sometimes commit crimes — for instance, because of untreated or undiagnosed mental health issues,” Mahadev, who works at the law school’s Children and Family Justice Center, said in an interview.
“In light of the growing recognition that a child’s needs and community safety is rarely, if ever, met by incarceration, the Juvenile Court Act has been amended in recent years to require that no child be sent to prison unless a court has truly and expressly considered both the child’s individual needs and whether they can be met by services in the community.”
A spokesperson for Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who represents the state in this case, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.