Young Murderers Who Stay in Juvenile Court Take Vastly Different Paths

© Daniel Acker/Bloomberg A man sits in Will County Jail in October 2013 in Joliet, Ill.
© Daniel Acker/Bloomberg A man sits in Will County Jail in October 2013 in Joliet, Ill.

In 2009, a 14-year-old boy shot and killed another teenager who was riding a bicycle down a suburban street. The boy told police he committed the crime on orders from a high-ranking gang member.

A few months later, police in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood arrested a 15-year-old for a murder that, while unrelated, was notably similar: He too said he shot another young person to prove his allegiance to his gang.

Both teens pleaded guilty. But because Andrew Lorek, the Chicago defendant, had turned 15 two weeks before his crime, he was automatically transferred to adult court, where he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Now 20, he’s due to be released when he’s 43.

The other boy’s case was handled in juvenile court. He’s set to regain his freedom next year, after he turns 21.

The markedly different paths for two teenagers who were both charged with first-degree murder are in large part the result of a decades-old Illinois law that automatically transfers offenders 15 or older to adult court for offenses ranging from the use of a weapon on school grounds to murder.

But as the U.S. Supreme Court, lawmakers and criminal justice experts continue to recognize fundamental differences between adolescents and adults, the country has started to rethink the tough-on-crime policies once touted as vital in combating a surge of youthful “superpredators.” That wave never came to pass, most experts agree, and new science mapping the brain development and rehabilitative potential of juveniles replaced those fears and buttressed calls for reform.

In Illinois, legislators voted in May to end automatic transfers for 15-year-olds and to limit the transfer of 16- and 17-year-olds to those accused of first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a firearm. Both advocates and opponents applauded the measure as a reasonable compromise between juvenile rights and public safety, though some question whether the reforms go far enough.

That measure now awaits action by Gov. Bruce Rauner. But even before it passed, Illinois courts also started to weigh in. Last year, appeals court judges raised an alarm over the existing law’s “absence of any judicial discretion.” Another judge argued in a dissenting opinion a year earlier that the “blanket transfer” of juveniles without consideration of maturity, intelligence, background or culpability “cannot pass constitutional muster.”

The Tribune reviewed thousands of pages of records from dozens of cases involving Illinois juvenile offenders – plus interviews with several people who committed murders before they turned 17. The analysis revealed vast differences in the outcomes of those charged as adults and those remained in juvenile courts and typically walked free at 21.

‘Trying to fit in’

In a bare room at Menard Correctional Center, Andrew Lorek glanced at the homemade tattoo on his wrist and sighed, saying he hates the emblem of his prior gang affiliation.

In the years before the shooting, Lorek said he was teased for his glasses, chipped tooth and stutter. He began treatment for mental health issues at 11, court records show. Behind every youthful misstep – joining a gang at 12, using drugs and alcohol, stealing cars – was a yearning to belong.

“I was trying to fit in with the crowd because I didn’t want to be looked at as uncool or lame or anything like that,” he said.

The day he gunned down a man believed to be a rival gang member in 2009 was no different. Lorek said he was working “security” for his gang when he spotted the 19-year-old wearing the wrong colors.

“I panicked,” Lorek said. “I emptied the clip.”

Lorek had been picked up before for battery, drugs and residential burglary, court records show. His father, a pastor, had moved the family to Bolingbrook, hoping the change of scenery would keep his son out of trouble.

After five years in detention, Lorek said his tattoo represents someone who no longer exists. He said he supports the move to give judges discretion to deciding to send a youth to adult court. But he’s come to terms with his fate.

“There’s no justifying what I’ve done,” he said. “I deserve a punishment for my crime. … If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have joined the gang. It’s not worth dying over a fading color.”

The progression of a juvenile who makes impulsive decisions, particularly at the behest of peers, to an adult who weighs the consequences of his actions, is not uncommon, said Dr. Jay Giedd, a leading neuroscientist who studies adolescent development. The part of the brain needed for impulse control, decision-making and long-term planning generally isn’t fully developed until a person’s late 20s, he said.

“The capacity for change is amazing,” said Giedd, adding there is “no bright line” or age that determines when a person’s brain reaches maturity. “It’s undeniable that the 25-year-old brain is different than the 16-year-old brain or the 14-year-old brain.”

He objects to any “one-size-fits-all” approach to how minors are handled in court.

“The individual should matter greatly,” Giedd said.

The U.S. Supreme Court appears to agree. In three landmark cases in the past decade, justices rejected the death sentence for one juvenile offender, a sentence of mandatory life without parole for another juvenile convicted of homicide, and life without parole in a non-homicide case.

One key difference between juvenile and adult court is that offenders convicted as juveniles are typically released at age 21, while those tried as adults can get decadeslong prison terms. Also, juvenile court cases are generally not a matter of public record, allowing those who complete their sentences to re-integrate into society without the shadow of a permanent criminal record.

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Source: Chicago Tribune | Duaa Eldeib

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