Amended Juvenile Automatic Transfer to Adult Court Scrutinized Again on Retroactivity

After much deliberation, two years ago Illinois lawmakers crafted a more lenient law for the transferring of juveniles to adult courts for some serious crimes. The idea was to give judges the clear opportunity to judge or to use their discretion for juveniles charged with serious crimes who were  16 years of age rather than to simply automatically transfer these juveniles to the adult court system. The new amendment increased the mandatory transfer age from 15 to 16 for crimes such as first-degree murder and aggravated sexual assault.

Ronald Patterson, a juvenile, was just 15 years old when he was arrested for allegedly committing rape.  He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 36 years in prison in an adult court after he was automatically transferred there. The issue now is whether the new law on automatic transfers, part of the Juvenile Court Act, should be applied to juveniles retrospectively. The new law and the applicable age change would have made a significant difference had the law been applied back in 2014. Should Patterson be allowed to be re-sentenced under the current law?

The nine-page Illinois Appellate Court opinion written by Justice P. Scott Neville stated that in applying the Statute on Statutes, that unless the legislature specifically says the amended provision does not apply retroactively, it generally should apply in such fashion.

“The [s]tate argues that the legislature implicitly intended prospective application for the amendment, as the amended statute has an effective date in 2016, well after the legislature passed the amendment in 2015,” wrote Justice Neville. “But the Statute on Statutes controls exactly this situation, where the legislature makes no explicit statement regarding retroactive application of an amendment.”

Two years ago the Illinois Supreme Court rejected Patterson’s argument that the transfer rule was an Eighth Amendment violation as “cruel and unusual punishment.” It was Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride who authored the 6-1 majority opinion then pleading to Illinois’ General Assembly to change the automatic transfer rules to allow judges to use their judicial discretion on whether a juvenile should be tried in adult court or remain in the juvenile court system. Justice Kilbride wrote then, “While modern research has recognized the effect that the unique qualities and characteristics of youth may have on a juveniles’ judgment and actions, the automatic transfer provision does not.”

In a powerful dissent in that same Illinois Supreme Court case, Justice Mary Jane Theis, a lone dissenter, wrote in criticizing the automatic transfer rule then in place: “Illinois should be a place where youth matters, and we work to tailor punishment to fit the offense and the offender, as required by our federal and state constitutions. For juveniles, that starts with abolishing automatic transfers.”

To no one’s surprise Illinois prosecutors have argued that the law as amended should not be applied retroactively. In 2014, Patterson made a jailhouse confession. It was argued that the confession should be thrown out or suppressed because in addition to several other reasons, the police made a less than enthusiastic attempt to contact an adult before Patterson confessed the crime. Additionally it was contended that the automatic transfer law then in effect, which required the automatic transfer of his case to an adult court, was unconstitutional. Although the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and sent the case back on remand.

Now the case is being reviewed on the issue of whether the amended law should apply. The Illinois Appellate Court has decided that Patterson should get a new chance to be sentenced in juvenile court because the age change should apply retroactively.

People v. Patterson, 2014 IL 115102

Robert D.Kreisman has been handling Illinois civil jury trials and other complex litigation cases for individuals, families and businesses for more than 40 years in and around Chicago and surrounding and other Illinois counties, including Cook, Will, Lake, Kane, DuPage and Kendall. Mr. Kreisman is the current chair of the Administration of Law subcommittee of the Union League Club of Chicago’s Public Affairs Committee. The Administration of Law subcommittee has been active in advocating for the reform of the Illinois juvenile justice system and promoted and supported the amendment to the Juvenile Court Act on automatic transfers that is the topic of this important case.

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