Gun Rights, Gun Control and a Local Push to Tax Guns and Their Ammo

Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.

As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.

While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.

So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market – a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.

Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.

Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.

According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.

“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.

Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.

And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.

But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.

What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.

According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.

Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.

But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.

Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.

Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.

With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.

Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.

In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”

According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.

Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.

For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.

“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.

“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”

Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.

For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.

Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.

After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.

And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.

“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”

But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.

“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”

Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.

Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.

But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”

What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.

“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”

This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.

Photo by Natalie Krebs. 

Roster of Exonerations Shows the Particular Vulnerability of Juveniles Under Questioning

Carl Williams’ inmate photo from Stateville Correctional Center. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Carl Williams was 17 years old when Cook County police arrested him in January of 1994. Williams was charged with two counts of murder and one count of sexual assault. He confessed to the crime after a police interrogation and along with four co-defendants, Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 1996.

Now, 18 years later, Williams, who claims he is innocent, has been granted an evidentiary hearing and a re-sentencing by the 1st District Appellate Court of Illinois. “The case of the wrong Carl” is a prime example of change in the way Illinois judges view confessions, said Steven Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions – and co-founder of the Center on Wrong Convictions of Youth – at the Northwestern University School of Law.

The Cook County justice system interrogates its juveniles as they do its adults.  And the center is quite certain that of the 100-plus juveniles currently serving life without parole sentences in the state, many of their convictions were based on false confessions.

Police found two of Williams’ co-defendants, Anthony Brown and Zarice Johnson, in a car with ‘Larry McGee,’ whose real name was later revealed as Clinton Taylor, a day after the murder on Jan. 14, 1994. Police who had already arrested the other two co-defendants only knew that the fifth perpetrator’s name was ‘Carl.’ Police demanded McGee tell them where ‘Carl’ was and threatened to implicate him in the crime, said Michael Sklar, Williams’ attorney. So McGee told them where to find the only Carl he knew, Carl Williams, Clinton Taylor, McGee’s real name, wrote in an affidavit obtained years later by Sklar.

Williams was arrested at half past 8 a.m. on that same day. He was brought to a small, windowless interrogation room in the South side of Chicago and handcuffed to the wall, Sklar said, where he was interrogated until 5 p.m. without food or drink.

“[Williams] said he was yelled at and accused of being involved in the crimes, and then towards the end of the interrogation, he claims he was physically abused, hit and knocked to the ground by the interrogating officers,” Sklar said.  Several hours later, at 11:15 p.m. Williams signed a confession – a hand written one by the assistant state’s attorney, which, according to Williams, went on for 10 pages and was ultimately a false admission.

“I think at least in Illinois, judges can no longer pretend that false confessions don’t exist,” Drizin said. “There have just been too many cases of proven false confessions and it’s beginning to challenge the long-held opinions of some who are on the bench. And the Williams case is a prime example. One of the justices [Patrick Quinn], during oral argument, commented that his views [on] false confessions are evolving.”

The drama – and trauma – of the Carl Williams case is hardly an isolated occurrence – one in fact that seems so common in Illinois and Cook County that ’60 Minutes’ recently ran a segment on cases, police and prosecutors here, dubbing Chicago as the ‘capital’ of false confessions. It’s a charge that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez responded to quickly, and angrily, in letters to CBS News and various news organizations.

But there’s no denying this: The past few years have highlighted the role of false confessions in juvenile convictions. In the Dixmoor 5 case, in which five juveniles were convicted with the 1991 murder and rape of a 14-year-old girl in the Chicago suburb, all five of the suspects had their convictions vacated and the group was cleared of the charges after DNA evidence exonerated them and their confessions were deemed false.

In the Englewood case, which happened in one of Chicago’s most bloody and notorious neighborhoods, four juveniles – ages 15, 16, 17 and 18 – were convicted in 1995 with the murder and rape of 30-year-old Nina Glover, who was slain four months earlier. All four had their convictions overturned on Nov. 16, 2011– also because of DNA evidence that showed the semen on Glover’s body belonged to a man with a long history of violence against sex workers and what were deemed false confessions.

“There was a time, decades, where I would completely agree with you…based on personal experience that people don’t confess to heinous murders,” said Justice Patrick Quinn during oral arguments to the prosecutor handling the case. Noting many changes have come with the advance of DNA testing and other science, he continued: “Why people confess to murdering and raping people, I have no idea, but they do. And it’s just a fact of jurisprudence that people do falsely say that they did terrible acts when they’re lying about it.”

And Drizin charged the problems that forced Williams and other juveniles to make false confessions. – problems he and others believe are systematic – still exist, and quite widely.

The reasons, he and other experts say, are many. But chief among them, perhaps, is that Chicago police are not trained to interrogate juveniles, who an increasing number of studies and even the U.S. Supreme Court have said are developmentally different from adults, and that electronic recordings, which can help judges, lawyers and police officers later determine if the interrogators had given enough detail for a false confession to be made, is only required by Illinois law of homicide interrogations – not all juvenile cases.

“When you have a highly confrontational interrogation in which police officers accuse suspects of lying, themselves lie, about the evidence against the suspect, and suggest to suspects that they will be treated more leniently if they can confess then if they don’t, you’re going to get a large number of false confessions from kids,” Drizin said.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain regulates judgment, problem-solving and stops impulsive behavior when an individual is faced with stress or fear. The prefrontal cortex of children and youth are less developed than in adults, according to, among others, the International Association of the Chiefs of Police (IACP), a nonprofit for police executives founded in Chicago.

In a joint collaboration between the IACP and the Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth, several standards were established in a brief for police interrogation of juveniles. Among other suggestions, police need to explain the juveniles’ Miranda Rights in simple terms, as the Miranda Rights requires a tenth-grade reading comprehension, and, even then, the juvenile may not understand their rights fully.

The interrogation can’t last more than four hours, especially not at night as they often had. After the first hour of interrogation, with each passing hour comes an increased chance of unreliable testimony and false confessions, according to experts. Police can’t use deception, threats or leniency as interrogation tactics as they lead juveniles to believe they have no choice but to confess to a crime they didn’t commit or juveniles begin to have doubts about their own innocence.

In a 2005 study of 340 individuals wrongfully convicted from 1989 to 2003 by Samuel R. Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, 42 percent of juveniles had made false confessions while only 13 percent of adults in the study had done so.

Police across Cook County, which includes Chicago and is among the largest court systems in the country and world, need to be trained in interrogating juveniles and adopt measures to ensure false confessions aren’t made, said Joshua Tepfer, project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.

Police across Cook County, which includes Chicago and is among the largest court systems in the country and world, need to adopt measures to ensure false confessions aren’t made, said Joshua Tepfer, project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Training police in interrogating juveniles is “the best thing that can be done,” Tepfer said in a recent opinion piece in the Chicago Sun Times. Such measures include using simpler language, avoiding deception, and using electronic recordings of interrogations. In 2005, lawmakers in Illinois passed a law requiring interrogations in homicide cases are electronically recorded—video or audio.

The law, should be extended to all juvenile cases, and not just homicides, Drizin said. Recordings serve to prevent police misconduct and also to help prosecutors, police, jurors, judges determine afterwards whether the defendant’s confession was a false one. Even a well-meaning police officer or prosecutor can give away facts and suggest answers in an intense interrogation, which the juvenile suspect will, all too frequently, repeat back to investigators during the confession.

But, “recording is not a panacea,” Drizin added in an email. “False confessions will continue to exist as long as police officers continue to interrogate suspects as if they were adults.”

Instead, juvenile suspects should be required to have counseling during interrogations, Drizin added. Juveniles often do not understand the consequences of their answers or their rights when they’re being interrogated. The presence of a parent, guardian, lawyer or even a youth officer – a police officer asked to switch roles and become an advocate for the juvenile during the interrogation – would be a friendly presence to the juvenile and decrease the chance of a false confessions, according to the IACP and CWCY brief.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 in the case of Gallegos v. Colorado, which involved the five-hour-long relay interrogation of a 15-year-old boy in the middle of the night on the murder of an elderly man that “a lawyer or an adult relative or friend could have given the petition the protection which his own immaturity could not.”

Drizin says he hopes police and prosecutors across Cook County, will adopt the measures outlined police needs to adopt when interrogating youth in the brief done by IACP and CWCY.

Such protections and measures could have helped Williams 18 years ago when he was subject to over seven hours of interrogation without food or water, and ended in what Williams maintains was a false confession.

Williams, who is now 36, appealed his ruling only to have his conviction affirmed by the state appellate court. He then petitioned twice at trial courts to have his convictions vacated, citing a warrantless arrest and withholding of evidence favorable to Williams by police. In his second petition, Williams was able to obtain affidavits from two of his co-defendants stating that when the police showed the co-defendants a Polaroid photo of Williams, the co-defendants had told the police Williams wasn’t the fifth perpetrator.

With each petition the court sided with the state. The third petition filed by Sklar and Williams resulted in the evidentiary hearing and resentencing. The ruling was a hard win, but brief victory after almost two decades of litigation battles. Williams is due a re-sentencing hearing regardless of whether the evidentiary hearing is successful or not because Williams was a juvenile when he was sentenced to life without parole. The appellate judge ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, in which the court this summer ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole – no matter the charge facing them, including murder, should be applied retroactively to Williams’ case.

Still, having his conviction vacated is not the same as being completely clear. Williams, in fact, is far from having his conviction overturned. He and Sklar are waiting, not for the evidentiary hearing, but for the state to decide if it will file a Petition for Leave to Appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court. Then, if the state’s high court decides to take the appeal, the ruling in favor of Williams could be overturned. If the appeal is not taken, then a hearing date will be scheduled. Williams could be months to a year away from his evidentiary hearing, Sklar said.

“[Williams] is incredibly calm and he’s hopeful,” Sklar said. “But he’s realistic.”

This story first appeared in The Chicago Bureau

To Keep Kids Out of the System, We Need Community Involvement

Most of the teenagers walking into my courtroom were 1st or 2nd time visitors.  They didn’t want to return, and we worked with them and their parents to make that first visit their last one.

However, some kids need more support and intervention to change their life trajectories from negative to positive.

After seeing the same teens in court year after year, judges wonder what it will take to change the behaviors that keep bringing them back into court. Short of sending a youth off to a state prison, the options usually available to juvenile court judges include stern lectures and warnings, mandated community service, assessment and rehabilitative services, and electronic monitoring.

Sometimes judges reach a point where everything has been tried at least once, and yet the youth is again back in court with a new offense.  When that happens, will the judge leave the youth with his or her family and try for rehabilitation again? Or will the judge think “been there, done that” and send the youth to incarceration far from home?

Sending any young person to prison can’t be equated with sending your troubles away forever. They always return. And when they do, they go right back into the same home environment, same community, and same group of friends or gang.

A few months or even years in a juvenile prison rarely improve behaviors. Unless something has changed at home, chances are that juvenile will be back in court or will age into the adult courts.

Incarceration is an option whenever the teen poses a threat to public safety or his own safety. Otherwise, rehabilitative services are worth repeated attempts. They are far less expensive than prison and are more effective.

While every situation is different, families always are key to keeping sons and daughters out of trouble.

The youth brought repeatedly to juvenile court often have parents who had been in either the juvenile or adult system – or both. Judges, especially in rural areas like my own, come across generations of families in courtrooms. One or more family members appear in child welfare cases, domestic violence situations, small claims court and every nook and cranny of the courthouse.

Because these families are involved in both the child welfare system and the justice system, we should involve both systems in solutions. Bringing community-based services to an entire family, can help parents communicate with their children to resolve arguments and use appropriate discipline to address behavior problems. When social services involve the youth’s entire family, other children in the home benefit as well, and we sometimes can prevent siblings from following the same path into the juvenile justice system.

Early investment in prevention and assistance, such as mental health counseling and treatment for drug addictions, can pay dividends for many years into the future. Breaking a family’s cycle of juvenile and adult crime is an obvious benefit to public safety, but it also means those youth become productive citizens less likely to need other assistance or return again and again to expensive adult prisons.

In Illinois, we’re beginning to apply those same lessons to the most challenging kids and families, through Redeploy Illinois, which keeps kids out of state prisons, and through innovative aftercare programming for youth who do pass through those youth prisons.

In 2011, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) piloted an aftercare program for youth entering prison from Cook County, our state’s largest county. By assigning specially trained aftercare specialists to work directly with youth and their families from the day they first enter prison until they leave and the months beyond, we can better prepare those youth to follow the law and continue in school.

This promising approach works with kids and families to plan for a safe and successful return home and to build support and strengths to keep kids in the community and out of costly and ineffective prisons. It’s showing positive impact and is rightly being expanded across the state.

To complement IDJJ’s aftercare specialists, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC) funded a youth aftercare series pilot project partnering with well established non-profit family service agencies to give added services to youth returning to some of the state’s toughest neighborhoods in Chicago and the East St. Louis region –communities sending the largest number of youth to the state’s juvenile prisons.

Using $1.5 million in federal funds, the Commission’s aftercare projects test the impact of intense, family-focused community services and support in keeping kids at home and out of prison.

Together, these projects are developing replicable models for working with young people at the “deep end” of the justice system.

These responses are even more successful when others in the community work with the juvenile justice system to reach teens in trouble. When service providers, including those outside the justice system, like faith-based organizations and schools, are trying to help the same family and can collaborate, they can create an integrated and powerful response. Communities must come together to save our children.

Whether in prison or not, we can’t give up on any young people. With the right supervision, support and services, all are capable of change and growth.

Illinois Supreme Court Ruling Hailed As Win for Juveniles

The Illinois Supreme Court has shot down a controversial practice that was the norm in the state’s juvenile courts for years, despite outcry that minors were not being treated fairly under state laws meant to protect their status as juveniles.

The court found that a lawyer’s second role as a guardian ad litem—an advocate for minors in court proceedings who pledges to act in the child’s “best interest”—may have inhibited him from providing his client with a zealous defense in a sexual abuse case.

Austin M.’s conviction was overturned by the court, which cited that a per se, or inherent, conflict of interest occurred when his lawyer decided to act as a guardian ad litem and declared that he was seeking the truth, “the same as the court and the same as the prosecutor.”

Some legal experts hailed the decision saying it was clear-cut under the due process clause and legal precedents in juvenile delinquency cases.

“Lawyers have a duty of confidentiality, a loyalty to their client that is compromised when they wear two hats; to begin to think of [themselves] as a ‘best interest’ lawyer,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Lawyers are either appointed by the court as guardians ad litem for their juvenile clients or choose to identify themselves as such, usually when the defendant’s parents do not appear during trials.

In many cases, a lawyer’s role as a guardian ad litem will override traditional attorney-client privileges like confidentiality, Levick said. With this decision, the court separated the two roles and endorsed zealous lawyering for kids, she said.

“To treat [juvenile delinquency] proceedings as anything other than adversarial proceedings, I think just really devalues the importance of these cases,” Levick said.

The defendant, Austin M., was 16 when he was charged with misdemeanor sexual abuse in 2006. The same lawyer represented Austin and his then 15-year-old brother, who was charged with the same crime but later acquitted for lack of evidence. Hybrid representation is common in Cook County courts and more widespread in Illinois than in other states, said Bruce Boyer, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago. He said courts want to save money by having lawyers wear both hats.

“In Illinois we are exceptionally tolerant of conflicts of interests, mostly because of finances,” Boyer said.

Just weeks before the state Supreme Court agreed to review Austin’s case, it rejected an appeal by a defendant who claimed that he had been denied his right to counsel because his lawyer – identifying himself also as a guardian ad litem – advocated against the child’s desire to stay at his mother’s home.

Sometimes juvenile defendants in Cook County aren’t given attorneys until after their initial hearing or after several days of trial, Boyer said.

Outrage erupted in 2009 when two Pennsylvania county judges plead guilty to charges of placing children in detention centers in exchange for kickbacks from the facilities’ owners. Hundreds of children appeared in court without counsel and were often convicted for minor offenses and transferred to out-of-home placements.

Children in delinquency proceedings have the same rights as adult criminal defendants (except for the rights to bail and a jury trial), as established by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1967. In the recent decision, the Illinois Supreme Court said that the counsel Austin received at trial was not the type guaranteed by the due process clause and the Illinois Juvenile Court Act.

The Illinois ruling came a few days after another sharp change to juvenile justice in the state. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed a new law that allows school officials to inspect and copy the criminal records of minors who have been arrested or are under investigation, drawing criticism from child advocates and civil liberties groups.

But Levick said she thinks the state high court’s ruling is a step forward to ensuring the rights of children on trial.

“The decision recognizes that juvenile delinquency proceedings are high stake proceedings, that they can carry very significant consequence all the way into adulthood for some of these kids,” she said.

The Illinois Supreme Court ordered that Austin be retried in circuit court.