Over the past few months, I've been sitting in on a drug case at the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue. There is no high-profile defendant on trial. Just a teenager from Chicago's West Side who got tripped up in a police sting for allegedly selling $80 worth of heroin to undercover officers.
At 17, Jemarco Baldon isn't old enough to call himself in sick for school. But at the criminal courthouse he's a full-fledged adult.
Illinois is one of 10 states across the country where 17-year-olds are automatically sent to adult lockup, court and, in many cases, prison on felony crimes. Most of the youth tangled in the adult courts are from Chicago where in our new investigation, "Minor misconduct," we found that the odds of arrest are stacked against them.
Chicago police have arrested more 17-year-olds than their counterparts in any other big city in the country that reports crime data to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Not surprisingly, local convictions have steadily grown. In Cook County alone, 4,351 of the teens have become felons over the past five years before they're able to buy cigarettes, vote or rent an apartment.
Numbers aside, Jemarco is just a kid hoping that he doesn't become "another statistic." Watch:
Jemarco is the first one to tell you that his neighborhood needs to be "cleaned up." More young people from his generation have been recently murdered in Chicago than any other city in the United States. With homicide numbers climbing, it makes sense that there is public, and political, support for going hard on crime.
But arrest data suggests that Chicago police were heavy-handed in arresting youth even before the recent homicides picked up. Chicago police arrested more 17-year-olds than Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia combined in 2009, which is the most recent year the feds logged the data. (New York police opted not to report their arrest data that year to the U.S. Department of Justice.) Include 15- and 16-year-olds and the Second City still held first. Check out the numbers for yourself here.
It's not because more teens live in Chicago. There are nearly three times more 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds living in Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia combined, the most recent census figures show.
Some experts, including folks over at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggest that teens who have early brushes with the law are more likely to commit additional crimes. To what extent that's contributing to serious crime here in Chicago is something we love to debate about at The Chicago Reporter. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission is studying the subject closely as members consider whether to recommend that lawmakers raise the age on juvenile jurisdiction to 18, in part, as a crime reduction strategy.
Jemarco may not be a man quite yet, but he's determined to take his case like he is.
He shows up a half-hour early for each appearance and waits by the door eager to catch his public defender's ear about a plea deal.
Never mind that neither he nor his attorney have had a chance to review the footage that police say they have as proof that he sold them drugs. Or that his court case is so thin on details that Jemarco's never seen a complete police report describing what led up to his arrest.
After being on house arrest since June, Jemarco is antsy to get back to a normal life. He's a first semester senior at Marshall Metropolitan High School who worked part-time at a fast food joint until his manager recently took him off the schedule for missing too many shifts because of his house arrest.
At worst, Jemarco is hoping for a conviction that's expugnable. What that will mean for his adult life, he's not quite sure. It's something he figures he'll deal with when he finally becomes one.