For victims of violent crimes in Chicago, the fight for justice doesn’t end when police make an arrest. Some victims, particularly those facing their attackers in Cook County’s secretive juvenile courts, may wonder who is looking out for them.
So it was with Casey, a Lakeview woman in her late 20s who was robbed at gunpoint by a crew of young offenders last November. With the help of a friend who now serves as her attorney, Casey tracked electronic money transfers, social media activity, and other clues that helped police bring charges against one of the robbers, a 17-year-old boy who was already on electronic monitoring.
It’s not easy for the public to see what happens behind the closed doors of Cook County’s juvenile courtroom doors. The defendants’ identities are protected by law, and media coverage is allowed only with permission from high-ranking judges.
But in a detailed conversation with CWBChicago, Casey and her attorney provided their first-hand experiences with the system.
‘There needs to be an adult in the room’
“It’s far less formal than adult court,” Casey’s attorney noted. “Anyone who wants to speak can. [The accused robber’s] mom can speak at any time… Every day, it was someone new speaking on his behalf.”
And few, if any, questions are asked.
For example, he said, “[the juvenile] claimed to have scored a perfect SAT score. And it kept coming up.”
No matter how often the perfect SAT score was mentioned, no one ever asked for proof.
“There should be an adult in the room,” her lawyer said.
“But the shenanigans from every player in the juvenile criminal justice system is just literally unbelievable,” the attorney asserted.
He said the prosecutor who initially handled Casey’s case was very good and responsive. But they weren’t good about “knowing the rules and victim’s rights and advocacy for the state of Illinois.”
By the time the juvenile pleaded guilty this summer, Casey was dealing with her “fifth or sixth” prosecutor, he said.
‘Mostly novice attorneys’
A former assistant state’s attorney in Cook County said it is common for juvenile cases to be passed from one prosecutor to another.
“Five or six sounds like the extreme case,” the ex-prosecutor said, “but two or three is very plausible… [the juvenile division has] around 20 mostly novice attorneys facing off against veteran public defenders, which is bad enough.”
“When people leave [the state’s attorney’s office] in such high numbers, the divisions that are lower on the experience totem pole have to send people up” to replace them.” And in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the juvenile division ranks low.
But that’s not the case in the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, which provides defense attorneys for many teens, the ex-prosecutor said. There, seasoned defense attorneys, often highly-skilled trial lawyers, see juvenile work as a meaningful way to cap off their years of service.
The result is that the advocacy for crime victims is often left to a revolving door of young and inexperienced prosecutors who are easily out-lawyered by a stable of veteran defense attorneys.
“Young attorneys have to learn,” Casey’s lawyer acknowledged, “but the lack of advocacy in court is somewhat troubling. I’m trying to be polite.”
In contrast, he said, the assistant public defender representing the alleged robber was “a 15-year veteran and good. Objecting to everything.”
He spoke of several times when prosecutors refused to follow through on basic requests guaranteed under the state’s Crime Victims and Witnesses Act.
In February, Casey asked to get her stolen phone back. The prosecutor refused.
“But the state law says it’s mandatory to return property as expeditiously as possible,” her lawyer claimed. Acting as Casey’s advocate, he went to the judge directly.
“The judge says, ‘Yes. Of course. That’s the law.’ and orders the [assistant state’s attorney] to return the phone,” he recalled.
“We’re getting ‘no’ from the defense and the ASAs. The judge says ‘yes.'”
As another example, he said every prosecutor who handled Casey’s case refused to ask the court for restitution, another right that victims have by law.
“It’s not an option. By law, she has a right to restitution. Why are these young ASAs telling victims they can’t have the things they are entitled to?”
“Without an outside party pushing for something to happen, it doesn’t happen.”
In May, the 17-year-old pleaded guilty to robbing Casey and her friend. He entered his plea exactly one week after Dakotah Earley, 23, was shot and gravely wounded in Lincoln Park, allegedly by someone who is thought to be part of the same robbery crew.
“He goes home [after pleading] and hops live on Instagram with a gun and points it at the camera while smoking a joint,” Casey’s lawyer recalled. “He is posting more pictures with guns, the [EM] bracelet visible, in cars, outside smoking weed.”
The attorney sent the Instagram material to CPD’s tip line. The police did nothing, he said. So he turned to the prosecutor, the fifth to handle Casey’s robbery.
“What can we do?” he remembered the prosecutor saying. “We’re monitoring it. Maybe later.”
Casey’s lawyer filed a motion on her behalf with the juvenile court judge, who promptly asked why he brought the matter before the court instead of the state, he recalled. A supervising prosecutor subsequently contacted Casey’s attorney, saying there was a “miscommunication.”
In Late June, the judge sentenced the teen to 24 months of probation for five armed robberies and a separate gun charge, according to Casey’s lawyer.
“We were told this would be the sentence from the beginning and knew it was more than the likely outcome,” he said, “but we had some hope given what we had previously brought to the court’s attention… EM violations, continued drug [use], gun, gang activities which the court recognized.”
The former prosecutor said probation is to be expected in Cook County’s juvenile system.
“Even when CPD and the attorneys do perfect work, judges almost invariably sentence the most violent minors to mere probation instead of any time behind bars,” the former ASA said. Prosecutors in the juvenile system rarely even suggest confinement “lest the judge laugh them out of the courtroom.”
On July 14, barely two weeks after sentencing, the 17-year-old was arrested again for a different matter, Casey’s lawyer said. But, thanks largely to the secretive world of Cook County juvenile courts, information about exactly what happened is not available.
“It’s tough to give victims constant bad news as the judges who turn their backs on victims make bad decision after bad decision, further endangering the most vulnerable communities,” said the former prosecutor. “Detectives tell me half of carjackings are done by juveniles. And who is the line of defense? A bunch of second- and third-year prosecutors facing off against experienced attorneys, with judges bent on making egregious decisions at every turn.”
“Because the proceedings are closed and confidential, these ideologue judges can, with impunity, release repeat violent kids, who are going to get themselves and others killed,” the ex-prosecutor continued. “If we had robust media coverage, the public would be utterly shocked. We are not rehabilitating minors as we’re supposed to. We’re emboldening these kids by showing that their actions have no consequences. They will likely get themselves hurt, or they’ll end up in adult jail with a life sentence.”