TV-6 Investigates: Illinois' changed juvenile transfer law

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STERLING, Ill. (KWQC) - Morrison 15-year-old's Anna Schroeder and Rachel Helm both await court hearings to determine if they'll be transferred to adult court for their roles in a murder this summer. Many of you have been asking us why these girls aren't being charged as adults in the first place.
Both have been charged with hiding a homicide and arson. Anna's also been charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Illinois lawmakers made it harder for kids to be automatically transferred to adult court two years ago. They raised the minimum age from 15 to 16 year old limited the number of crimes it applied to.
That's why prosecutors, in this case, are now having to convince a judge to send both Anna and Rachel to adult court.

Sterling Attorney James Mertes said, "The law and society, we treat children differently than we do adults."

Mertes represents 15-year-old murder suspect Anna Schroeder. He said her age is critically important to this case because kids are not mini-adults.

"The law does that because the law correctly concludes that juveniles, minors, have a very different mental capacity than adults and they're held to different standards," said Mertes.

TV-6 learned in court Schroeder turned 15 three days before the death of her mother on July 6th. Police have charged her with murder, but she's too young in the eyes of the law to automatically be tried as an adult.

"It is the result of discussions between the state's attorneys, the Cook County Board President, and the juvenile justice groups," said Democratic State Representative Elaine Nekritz. She was explaining the discussion to lawmakers on the floor of the state house back in 2015.

Lawmakers changed Illinois' automatic transfer law that year. They were responding in part to the Illinois Supreme Court. The justices took issue with the automatic transfer law in another case involving a 15-year-old. They said the law kept judges from deciding which type of court was best for a child accused of a serious crime. One justice called the law unconstitutional. They urged lawmakers to review it.

"To go before a juvenile court judge who can take into account the circumstances of the crime, the juvenile's circumstances, and make a considered decision about whether this juvenile should remain in juvenile court or be transferred to adult court," explained Nekritz.

Lawmakers were also reacting to pressure from juvenile justice reform groups. A report from the Chicago area showed the automatic transfer law caused significant problems. Black children were over represented in adult court as a result of the law. 256 were automatically transferred to adult court over a three year period. Only one child transferred was white.

Lawmakers worked on a bill that struck a compromise. They limited automatic transfer to three crimes including murder, sex assault, and aggravated battery with a firearm. They also raised the age. Kids now must be at least 16-years-old.

Retired Judge George Timberlake said, "The fact that somebody has done something bad or even terrible when they're young doesn't mean that they cannot change their ways."

Timberlake supports the changes. He chairs Illinois' Juvenile Justice Commission and heard juvenile cases for 23 years. For many of his earlier cases, he believed his role was to punish.

"I made lots of mistakes, trying to do good, and I can think of a number of teenagers who I sent to prison who went back," said Timberlake.

He said we now know so much more about kids brains than we did before. Research beginning in the mid 90's found children's brains weren't fully developed until their mid 20's, meaning even in heinous crimes, children don't fully understand their actions.

"That science which costs tens of millions of dollars simply proved what every mother who raised teenagers could have told you, namely, they're not in full control of their faculties," said Timberlake.

And crucially, Timberlake said researchers found kids can still learn from even the most serious of mistakes. He said committing a crime doesn't mean a kid is doomed to life as a delinquent.

"Kids are different and young adults are different, and should be treated differently," said Timberlake.

Which brings us back to Schroeder. Whether she stays in juvenile court will be up to the judge hearing the case. She'll have to weigh several factors including the severity of the crime. In court, the detective said Schroeder admitted to shooting her mother in the face. But in this case, Mertes said the judge will also have to decide how far lawmakers meant to go to keep juveniles out of the adult system.

"A case that's not been decided before that will give us greater direction as to what the law ultimately means, and what the changes in the law ultimately mean as we go forward in the future," said Mertes.

The judge set a transfer hearing for Rachel Helm in November. Anna Schroeder is still waiting for her transfer hearing to be set.