In a decision that is otherwise not particularly noteworthy for wrongful conviction purposes, the First District appellate court recently pointed out that the Post-Conviction Hearing Act does not apply to juvenile proceedings. In re Timothy P., No. 1-07-1518 (January 28, 2009). Several previous appellate court cases have so held, although the Illinois Supreme Court has never spoken on the issue.
The Post-Conviction Hearing Act is the primary procedural vehicle used for asserting innocence claims based on new evidence. It is also the means of attacking constitutional violations that occurred at a defendant's trial. What are we to take from the exclusion of minors' adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court from this Act? Does this mean that no innocent minor is ever found guilty in juvenile court or that no minor has his constitutional rights violated?
We know this is not the case. Rather, there is reason to believe that young people may be even more susceptible to wrongful convictions. The growing list of exonerees includes many individuals who were accused when they were under 18. While most were tried and convicted in adult court, this is because the vast majority of exonerations are in murder and rape cases, which are most often tried in adult court even when the accused is under 18. We also know that the likelihood of a false confessions increases when the accused is a young person. Certainly, there are young people who have falsely confessed to lesser crimes who have subsequently been convicted in juvenile court.
In fact, there is reason to believe that juvenile court might be particularly susceptible to wrongful convictions. With no jury trial right, the same trial judge that may have previously presided over a case of the minor is the fact-finder in the new case. This mihgt create an inherent bias in the judge's mind against the minor. Moreover, very few juvenile cases are appealed, so the appellate court is not given the opportunity to correct errors in judgment. Further, the culture of juvenile court -- which at times discourages zealous advocacy in lieu of "the best interests of the minor" -- may contradict the presumption of innocence. The reality is that the issue of wrongful convictions in juvenile court is largely unexplored.
Why should we care? While it is true sentences in juvenile court may be less severe, there are serious consequences. A minor may be imprisoned until he is 21. A sentence of probation puts a minor in the system, and a subsequent, even non-criminal infranction could lead to prison time. Even a small adjudication may affect a young person's future. For example, a misdemeanor sex offense requires a minor to register as a sex offender. All felony offenses require the minor to submit his DNA into a state and national federal database. And a juvenile adjudication may affect a minor's job or college prospects in the future, specifically a government job.
The Illinois Supreme Court should address the issue of the applicability of the Post-Conviction Hearing Act to juvenile proceedings. Alternatively, the general assembly should clarify the Act to make clear that it includes delinquency proceedings. It does not make sense that Act does not apply to juvenile adjudications.